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Before we start, let me explain that ATSC 1.0 is the HDTV standard, and defines what you get from HDTV stations over the air and cable. It dates from the last millennium. Resolution currently maxes out at 1080i, which fails to take advantage even the lowest-end HDTVs sold today, which are 1080p (better than 1080i).

Your new 4K TV or computer screen has 4x the resolution and “upscales” the ATSC picture it gets over the air or from cable. But actual 4k video looks better. Sources for that include satellite TV providers (DirectTV and Dish) and streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, etc.).

In other words, the TV broadcast industry is to 4K video what AM radio is to FM. (Or what both are to streaming.)

This is why our new FCC chairman is stepping up for broadcasters. In FCC’s Pai Proposes ATSC 3.0 Rollout, John Eggerton (@eggerton) of B&C (Broadcasting & Cable) begins,

New FCC chairman Ajit Pai signaled Thursday that he wants broadcasters to be able to start working on tomorrow’s TV today.

Pai, who has only been in the job since Jan. 20, wasted no time prioritizing that goal. He has already circulated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to the other commissioners that would allow TV stations to start rolling out the ATSC 3.0 advanced TV transmission standard on a voluntary basis. He hopes to issue final authorization for the new standard by the end of the year, he said in an op ed in B&C explaining the importance of the initiative.

“Next Gen TV matters because it will let broadcasters offer much better services in a variety of ways,” Pai wrote. “Picture quality will improve with 4K transmissions. Accurate sound localization and customizable sound mixes will produce an immersive audio experience. Broadcasters will be able to provide advanced emergency alerts with more information, more tailored to a viewer’s particular location. Enhanced personalization and interactivity will enable better audience measurement, which in turn will make for higher-quality advertising—ads relevant to you and that you actually might want to see. Perhaps most significantly, consumers will easily be able to watch over-the-air programming on mobile devices.”

Three questions here.

  1. Re: personalization, will broadcasters and advertisers agree to our terms rather than vice versa? Term #1: #NoStalking. So far, I doubt it. (Not that the streamers are ready either, but they’re more likely to listen.)
  2. How does this square with the Incentive Auction, which—if it succeeds—will get rid of most over the air TV?
  3. What will this do for (or against) cable, which is having a helluva time wedging too many channels into its available capacities already, and do it by compressing the crap out of everything, filling the screen with artifacts (those sections of skin or ball fields that look plaid or pixelated).

Personally, I think both over the air and cable TV are dead horses walking, and ATSC 3.0 won’t save them. We’ll still have cable, but will use it mostly to watch and interact with streams, most of which will come from producers and distributors that were Net-native in the first place.

But I could be wrong about any or all of this. Either way (or however), tell me how.



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The Cinternet is Donnie Hao Dong’s name for the Chinese Internet. Donnie studies and teaches law in China and is also a fellow here at Harvard’s Berkman Center. As Donnie sees (and draws) it, the Cinternet is an increasingly restricted subset of the real thing:


He calls this drawing a “map of encirclement.” That last noun has a special meaning he explains this way:

“The Wars of (anti-)Encirclement Compaign” were a series battles between China Communist Party and the KMT‘s Nanjing Gorvernment in 1930s. At the time the CCP established a government in south-central China (mostly in Jiang Xi Province). The KMT’s army tried five times to attack and encircle the territory of CCP’s regime. And The CCP’s Red Army was almost defeated in the Fifth Encirclement War in 1934. The Long March followed the war and rescued CCP and its army.

Encirclement is more than censorship. It’s a war strategy, and China has been at war with the Internet from the start.

But while China’s war is conscious, efforts by other countries to encircle the Net are not. To see what I mean by that, read Rebecca MacKinnon‘s Are China’s demands for Internet ‘self-discipline’ spreading to the West? Her short answer is yes. Her long answer is covered in these paragprahs:

To operate in China, Google’s local search engine, Google.cn, had to meet these “self-discipline” requirements. When users typed words or phrases for sensitive subjects into the box and clicked “search,” Google.cn was responsible for making sure that the results didn’t include forbidden content.

It’s much easier to force intermediary communications and Internet companies such as Google to police themselves and their users than the alternatives: sending cops after everybody who attempts a risque or politically sensitive search, getting parents and teachers to do their jobs, or chasing down the origin of every offending link. Or re-considering the logic and purpose of your entire system.

Intermediary liability enables the Chinese authorities to minimize the number of people they need to put in jail in order to stay in power and to maximize their control over what the Chinese people know and don’t know.

In its bombshell announcement on Jan. 12, Google cited massive cyber attacks against the Gmail accounts of human rights activists as the most urgent reason for re-evaluating its presence in China. However, the Chinese government’s demands for ever-increasing levels of censorship contributed to a toxic and unsustainable business environment.

Remember that phrase: intermediary liability. It’s a form of encirclement. Rebecca again:

Meanwhile in the Western democratic world, the idea of strengthening intermediary liability is becoming increasingly popular in government agencies and parliaments. From France to Italy to the United Kingdom, the idea of holding carriers and services liable for what their customers do is seen as the cheapest and easiest solution to the law enforcement and social problems that have gotten tougher in the digital age — from child porn to copyright protection to cyber-bullying and libel.

I’m not equating Western democracy with Chinese authoritarianism — that would be ludicrous. However, I am concerned about the direction we’re taking without considering the full global context of free expression and censorship.

The Obama administration is negotiating a trade agreement with 34 other countries — the text of which it refuses to make public, citing national security concerns — that according to leaked reports would include increased liability for content hosting companies and service providers. The goal is to combat the global piracy of movies and music.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t fight crime or enforce the law. Of course we should, assuming that the laws reflect the consent of the governed. But let’s make sure that we don’t throw the baby of democracy and free speech out with the bathwater, as we do the necessary work of adjusting legal systems and economies to the Internet age.

Next, What Big Content wants from net neutrality (hint: protection), by Nate Anderson in Ars Technica. According to Nate, more than ten thousand comments were filed on the subject of net neutrality with the FCC, and among these were some from the RIAA and the MPAA. These, he said, “argued that the FCC should encourage ISPs to adopt ‘graduated response’ rules aimed at reducing online copyright infringement”, and that they “also reveal a content-centric view of the world in which Americans will not ‘obtain the true benefits that broadband can provide’ unless ‘copyrighted content [is] protected against theft and unauthorized online distribution'”. He continues,

What could graduated response possibly have to do with network neutrality? The movie and music businesses have seized on language in the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that refuses to extend “neutrality” to “unlawful content.” The gist of the MPAA and RIAA briefs is that network neutrality’s final rules must allow for—and in fact should encourage—ISPs to take an active anti-infringement role as part of “reasonable network management.”

Not that the word “infringement” is much in evidence here; both briefs prefer “theft.” The RIAA’s document calls copyright infringement “digital piracy—or better, digital theft,” and then notes that US Supreme Court Justice Breyer said in the Grokster case that online copyright infringement was “garden variety theft.”

To stop that theft, the MPAA and RIAA want to make sure that any new FCC rules allow ISPs to act on their behalf. Copyright owners can certainly act without voluntary ISP assistance, as the RIAA’s lengthy lawsuit campaign against file-swappers showed, but both groups seem to admit that this approach has now been hauled out behind the barn and shot.

According to the RIAA, “Without ISP participation, it is extremely difficult to develop an effective prevention approach.” MPAA says that it can’t tackle the problem alone and it needs “broadband Internet access service providers to cooperate in combating combat theft.”

“No industry can, or should be expected to, compete against free-by-theft distribution of its own products,” the brief adds.

“We thus urge the Commission to adopt rules that not only allow ISPs to address online theft, but actively encourage their efforts to do so,” says the RIAA.

And that’s how we get the American Cinternet. Don’t encircle it yourself. Get the feds to make ISPs into liable intermediaries forced to practice “self discipline” the Chinese way: a “graduated response” that encircles the Net, reducing it to something less: a spigot of filtered “content” that Hollywood approves. Television 2.0, coming up.

Maybe somebody can draw us the Content-o-net.

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I just posted this essay to IdeaScale at OpenInternet.gov, in advance of the Open Internet Workshop at MIT this afternoon. (You can vote it up or down there, along with other essays.)  I thought I’d put it here too. — Doc

The Internet is free and open infrastructure that provides almost unlimited support for free speech, free enterprise and free assembly. Nothing in human history, with the possible exception of movable type — has done more to encourage all those freedoms. We need to be very careful about how we regulate it, especially since it bears only superficial resemblances to the many well-regulated forms of infrastructure it alters or subsumes.

Take radio and TV, for example. Spectrum — the original “bandwidth” — is scarce. You need a license to broadcast, and can only do so over limited distances. There are also restrictions on what you can say. Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1464, prohibits “any obscene, indecent or profane language by means of radio communication.” Courts have upheld the prohibition.

Yet, as broadcasters and the “content industry” embrace the Net as a “medium,” there is a natural temptation by Congress and the FCC to regulate it as one. In fact, this has been going on since the dawn of the browser. The Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act (DPRSA) came along in 1995. The No Electronic Theft Act followed in 1997. And — most importantly — there was (and still is) Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998.

Thanks to the DMCA, Internet radio got off to a long and very slow start, and is still severely restricted. Online stations face payment requirements to music copyright holders are much higher than those for broadcasters — so high that making serious money by webcasting music is nearly impossible. There are also tight restrictions on what music can be played, when, and how often. Music on podcasts is essentially prohibited, because podcasters need to “clear rights” for every piece of copyrighted music they play. That’s why, except for “podsafe” music, podcasting today is almost all talk.

There is also a risk that we will regulate the Net as a form of telephony or television, because most of us are sold Internet service as gravy on top of our telephone or cable TV service — as the third act in a “triple play.” Needless to say, phone and cable companies would like to press whatever advantages they have with Congress, the FCC and other regulatory bodies.

It doesn’t help that most of us barely know what the Internet actually is. Look up “The Internet is” on Google and see what happens: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q… There is little consensus to be found. Worse, there are huge conflicts between different ways of conceiving the Net, and talking about it.

For example, when we say the Net consists of “sites,” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “visit,” we are saying the Internet is a place. (Where, presumably, you can have free speech, enterprise and assembly.)

But if we say the Net is a “medium” for the “distribution” of “content” to “consumers,” we’re talking about something more like broadcasting or the shipping industry, where those kinds of freedoms are more restricted.

These two ways of seeing the Net are both true, both real, and both commonly used, to the degree that we mix their metaphors constantly. They also suggest two very different regulatory approaches.

Right now most of us think about regulation in terms of the latter. That is, we want to regulate the Net as a shipping system for content. This makes sense because most of us still go on the Net through connections supplied by phone or cable companies. We also do lots of “downloading” and “uploading” — and both are shipping terms.

Yet voice and video are just two among countless applications that can run on the Net — and there are no limits on the number and variety of those applications. Nor should there be.

So, what’s the right approach?

We need to start by recognizing that the Net is infrastructure, in the sense that it is a real thing that we can build on, and depend on. It is also public in the sense that nobody owns it and everybody can use it. We need to recognize that the Net is defined mostly by a collection of protocols for moving data — and most of those protocols are open to improvement by anybody. These protocols may be limited in some ways by the wired or wireless connections over which they run, but they are nor reducible to those connections. You can run Internet protocols over barbed wire if you like.

This is a very different kind of infrastructure than anything civilization has ever seen before, or attempted to regulate. It’s not “hard” infrastructure, like we have with roads, bridges, water and waste treatment plants. Yet it’s solid. We can build on it.

In thinking about regulation, we need to maximize ways that the Net can be improved and minimize ways it can be throttled or shut down. This means we need to respect the good stuff every player brings to the table, and to keep narrow but powerful interests from control our common agenda. That agenda is to keep the Net free, open and supportive of everybody.

Specifically, we need to thank the cable and phone companies for doing the good work they’ve already done, and to encourage them to keep increasing data speeds while also not favoring their own “content” subsidiaries and partners. We also need to encourage them to stop working to shut down alternatives to their duopolies (which they have a long history of doing at both the state and federal levels).

We also need to thank and support the small operators — the ISPs and Wireless ISPs (WISPs) — who should be able to keep building out connections and offering services without needing to hire lawyers so they can fight monopolists (or duopolists) as well as state and federal regulators.

And we need to be able to build out our own Internet connections, in our homes and neighborhoods — especially if our local Internet service providers don’t provide what we need.

We can only do all this if we start by recognizing the Net as a place rather than just another medium — a place that nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve.

Doc Searls
Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Harvard University

[Later…] A bonus link from Tristan Louis, on how to file a comment with the FCC.

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The comment thread in my last post was lengthened by Seth Finkelstein‘s characterization of me as “basically a PR person”. I didn’t like that, and a helpful back-and-forth between the two of us (and others) followed. In the midst of the exchange I said I would unpack some of my points in a fresh post rather than branch off in the comment thread. So here we are.

We tend to be defined by what we do. Or, in some cases, what we’ve done. Many of our surnames describe the work of an ancestor. Carpenter. Baker. Weaver. Tanner. Of my own surname, it says here,

In his book, Surnames of the United Kingdom, Harrison writes that the surname Searle, Searls, Searles, Serle, Serles, Serrell, or Serrill is of Teutonic origin signifying “Armour or Arms”. It is derived from the Old Teutonic Serlo, Sarla, Sarl, Sarilo, Serilo. Serli ” and the Old English “Searo”, it is the equivalent of the Old High German “Saro” which is the same as the old Norse ” Sorus” meaning Armor arms, skill or device.”

A soldier, I guess. My father, Allen H. Searls, was a soldier, both before and during WWII (he re-enlisted at age 36). But basically he was a carpenter: a builder. So was his father, George William Searls. Also George’s father, Allen Searls. Also Allen’s father, Samuell Searls. I’m not, but my daugther Colette married Todd Carpenter. So my grandson is a Carpenter too.

By the time I knew him, my father was an insurance agent. But he saw himself more as an builder of useful stuff. Thus our basement was a workshop. Pop’s brother-in-law, Archie Apgar, was a banker by day and a builder the rest of the time. In the summer of 1949, the two of them together built our summer house in the woods of South Jersey. (In a paradise of pine, oak and blueberries, now home to a shopping center.) My father was also a longshoreman, a cable-rigger on the George Washington Bridge, and a builder of railroad trestles. He did that in Alaska, where he met my mother, a social worker who had grown up in North Dakota. They married after the War and moved to New Jersey, where Mom worked for many years as a teacher. Her maiden name was Oman, borrowed by a grandfather from a fellow Swede on the boat over from Malmö (or maybe it was Göteburg… someplace with an umlaut).

Mom was a good writer, and in that respect I took more after her than Pop. I started writing in high school, covered sports for my college paper, and the wrote for a variety of newspapers and  magazines across the many years since.

But I’ve done lots of other stuff too. I was a moving man. I drove an ice cream truck. I worked in frozen produce wholesaling (which consisted of moving skids of goods with forklifts and carrying clipboards in and out of freezing warehouses, railroad cars and tractor trailers). I worked in the fronts and the backs of restaurant kitchens, and waiting tables. I flipped burgers and worked counters in fast food joints. I worked in the kitchen at a hospital, and delivering food to patients. I worked in retail, both in sales and management. I worked as a community organizer in a social welfare project (a job that later gave me respect for Barack Obama’s work at the same job, especially since he was good at it and I was not). I worked in radio, doing everything from selling ads to spinning records to engineering, including maintaining transmitters and tower-climbing to change bulbs. I did site studies for FM stations, and made new facility applications to the FCC. I worked in academic parapsychology, helping with research and editing publications. I worked in a landlord’s sawmill when I couldn’t make the rent. And I worked in advertising and PR. Next to writing, that’s the job I held longest.

In 1978 I co-founded Hodskins Simone & Searls, an advertising agency in Durham, North Carolina. By 1980 we came to specialize in what as then called “high tech”. We did well and opened a second office in Palo Alto, moving there completely in 1986. A couple years later we created a division called The Searls Group, which specialized in PR, and eventually spun off on its own as a marketing consultancy. Our clients included Farallon, Symantec, The Burton Group, pieces of Apple and Motorola, Sun Microsystems, Hitachi Semiconductor, Zenith Data Systems and many more.

I had mixed feelings about doing PR, because I was still a journalist at heart, even though I was only freelancing at it during that time. And, while being a journalist made me a better flack, it didn’t make me less of one. I also found that PR folk had little leverage on corporate strategy. Their function was output, not input. So, after awhile, I moved The Searls Group’s work up the client stack, to the point where we did consulting at the CXO level, helping clients understand and engage their markets, rather than in helping them craft and send messages to those markets. You might say our job was delivering (often unwelcome) clues to the places where those clues were needed most. This shift started in the early ’90s and was done by the time Chirs Locke, Rick Levine, David Weinberger and I wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto, in 1999.

Not long after Cluetrain came out as a book in early 2000, Jakob Nielsen noted the use of the first person plural voice in the original Manifesto. When we talked about “we”, as with this here…


… we were not speaking as marketers. We were speaking as human beings, out in the marketplace. What happened, Jakob said, was that “You guys defected from marketing, and sided with markets against marketing.”

He was right.

The great irony that followed was that Cluetrain was generally classified as a marketing book, and its closest followers have been in marketing as well. Many marketers have been inspired by Cluetrain to improve marketing, including the practices of advertising and PR. Along those same lines, Cluetrain has also been credited with foreseeing the “social” movement in computing and communications, and with inspiring and guiding that movement as well. Look up Cluetrain+social on Google and see what comes up. (Here’s a Twitter search for the same.)

I’m not proud, or even happy, with either of those developments. Not long ago I even suggested that “social media” is a crock. My point was not to denigrate people doing good work in the social media space, but rather to point out that our collective vision of this space was wrongly limited to what could be done on Facebook, Twitter and other commercial “platforms”. Ignored was the freedom and independence granted by the Net’s own open and essentially ownerless platforms and protocols — and the need to equip individuals with their own instruments of independence and engagement: work that’s still mostly not done.

That’s why I welcomed the opportunity to add fresh chapters to Cluetrain for its 10th anniversary edition. For the last few years I’ve been working on Cluetrain’s unfinished (or unstarted) business, through ProjectVRM, at Harvard’s Berkman Center, and through its collection of allied efforts and volunteers, both around the Center and around the world. Thus my own chapter of the latest Cluetrain is titled Markets Are Relationships, and unpacks the ambitions behind VRM (which stands for Vendor Relationship Management):

  1. Provide tools for individuals to manage relationships with organizations. These tools are personal. That is, they belong to the individual, in the sense that they are under the individual’s control. They can also be social, in the sense that they can connect with others and support group formation and action. But they need to be personal first.
  2. Make individuals the collection centers for their own data, so that transaction histories, health records, membership details, service contracts, and other forms of personal data aren’t scattered throughout a forest of silos.
  3. Give individuals the ability to share data selectively, without disclosing more personal information than the individual allows.
  4. Give individuals the ability to control how their data is used by organizations, and for how long, including agreements requiring organizations to delete the individual’s data when the relationship ends.
  5. Give individuals the ability to assert their own “terms of service,” obviating the need for organization-written terms of service that nobody reads and everybody has to “accept” anyway.
  6. Give individuals means for expressing demand in the open market, outside any organizational silo, without disclosing any unnecessary personal information.
  7. Make individuals platforms for business, by opening the market to many kinds of third party services that serve buyers as well as sellers.
  8. Base relationship-managing tools on open standards, open APIs (application program interfaces) and open code. This will support a rising tide of activity that will lift an infinite variety of business boats, plus other social goods.

We don’t have those tools yet. When we do, they will change the way customers relate to companies, and therefore change the reverse as well. That will change the job of marketing, sales, and pretty much everything else a company does — so long as it responds to customers who are far better equipped to express demand, and otherwise relate, than they are today.

So, to sum up, there is a place where I stand in respect to all the above. That place is alongside customers, in the marketplace. Not alongside sellers, even when I’m consulting those sellers. My consulting hat is not a PR or a marketing one. It’s a customer hat. A user hat. (And, to the extent that I’m hired to help make sense of free and open source development, a geek hat.)

This is why I took offense to being labeled a “PR person.” I have no problem with good PR people. In fact I try to help them out, along with everybody else who’s interested in my input. But what makes me valuable, I believe, is where I stand in respect to customers. I’m on their side. I’m trying to help them out, and markets along with them. Maybe I’ll succeed, and maybe not. But I do believe that, in the long run, we will have VRM tools, and that these tools will make life better for everybody in the marketplace, including vendors.

Meanwhile, there is a temptation not only to confuse the past with the , but the present with the future. We tend to assume that, as John Updike once said (at a time when copiers, answer machines and faxes seemed miraculous), “we live in the age of full convenience”. We don’t. The present is just a draft for the future. Our conveniences are just prototypes.

I’m glad Seth and others (Dave Rogers, where are you?) are out there, calling bullshit on techno-utopians like me. A lot of what Seth and others on that thread had to say was sobering stuff. The flywheels of Old Skool industrial practices, and thinking, have not gone away. They even spin inside “good” companies like Google.

Markets are different now that the Net runs beneath them. There are fewer secrets, and both good ideas and bad can spread with alarming speed. Lately the split between the static and the live web (which most of us call “real-time” and some of us saw coming half a decade and more ago) has become dramatic and confusing. So has the split between fixed and mobile computing and communications. One can get lost through enthusiasm, despair, or both. Hey, the iPhone is a wonderful thing, but — what next? And why? And how?

Markets are no better than we make them. I’m not sure what one should call a person who works on tools to make markets better. But hey, that’s my job.

Guess I’m a builder after all.

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For the form of life we call business, we are at a boundary between eras. For biological forms of life, the most recent of these is the K-T boundary between the  and the Eras. The Mezozoic Era ended when Earth was struck by an object that left a crater 110 miles wide and a world-wide layer of iridium-rich crud. Below that layer lies the Age of Dinosaurs, completed. Above that layer accumulate the fossils of life forms that survived the change, and took advantage of it. Notable among these is a branch of theropod dinosaurs we call birds.

In business we have the I-I boundary: the one between the Industrial and Information ages (which Alvin Toffler first observed in The Third Wave, published in 1980).  Below that boundary we find a communications environment dominated by telecom and cablecom. Above it we find a radically different communications environment that still supports voice and video, but as just two among an endless variety of other applications. We call that environment the Internet.

At this moment in history most of us know the Internet as a tertiary service of telephone and cable companies, which still make most of their money selling telephone service and cable TV. Since those are highly regulated businesses, the Internet is subject to degrees of regulatory capture. Some of that capture is legal, but much of it is conceptual, for example when we see the Internet as a grace of telecom and cablecom — rather than as something that subsumes and obsoletes both of those Industrial Age frames.

Such is the risk with “broadband” — a term inherited by the Internet from both telecom and cablecom, and which is a subject of interest for both Congress and the FCC. In April of this year the FCC announced the development of a national broadband plan, subtitled “Seeks Public Input on Plan to Ensure Every American has Access to Broadband Capability”. In July the commission announced that Harvard’s Berkman Center would conduct “an independent review of broadband studies” to assist the FCC. Then yesterday the center put up a notice that it “is looking for a smart, effective fellow to join our broadband research team”. (This is more than close to home for me, since I am a fellow at Berkman. So I need to say that the broadband studies review is not my project — mine is this one — and that I am not speaking for the Berkman Center here, or even in my capacity as a fellow.)

The challenge here for everybody is to frame our understanding of the Net, and of research concerning the Net, in terms that are as native to the Net as possible, and not just those inherited from the Industrial Age businesses to which it presents both threats and promise — the former more obvioius than the latter. This will be very hard, because the Internet conversation is still mostly a telecom and cablecom conversation. (It’s also an entertainment industry conversation, to the degree that streaming and sharing of audio and video files are captive to regulations driven by the recording and movie industries.)

This is the case especially for legislators and regulators, too few of which are technologists. Some years ago Michael Powell, addressing folks pushing for network neutrality legislation, said that he had met with nearly every member of Congress during his tour of duty as FCC chairman, and that he could report that nearly all of them knew very little about two subjects. “One is technology, and the other is economics,” he said. “Now proceed.”

Here is what I am hoping for, as we proceed both within this study and beyond it to a greater understanding of the Internet and the new Age it brings on:

  • That “broadband” comes to mean the full scope of the Internet’s capabilities, and not just data speeds.
  • That we develop a native understanding of what the Internet really is, including the realization that what we know of it today is just an early iteration.
  • That telecom and cablecom companies not only see the writing on the wall for their old business models, but embrace other advantages of incumbency, including countless new uses and businesses that can flourish in an environment of wide-open and minimally encumbered connectivity — which they have a privileged ability to facilitate.
  • That the Net’s capacities are not only those provided from the inside out by “backbone” and other big “carriers”, but from the outside in by individuals, small and mid-size businesses (including other Internet service providers, such as WISPs) and municipalities.

That last item is important because carriers are the theropods of our time. To survive, and thrive, they need to adapt. The hardest challenge for them is to recognize that the money they leave on the shrinking Industrial Age table is peanuts next to the money that will appear on the Information Age table they are in a privileged position to help build.

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Mark Finnern has a great idea: Wikipedia papers. Specifically,

Every student that takes a class has to create or improve a Wikipedia page to the topic of the class. It shouldn’t be the only deliverable, but an important one.

The Wikimedia organization could help the professors with tools, that highlight the changes that a certain user has done on a page. You only pass, when the professor is satisfied with the scientific validity of the page. One could even mark the pages that went through this vetting process differently.

Instead of creating papers that end up in a drawer, you would create pages that you even feel ownership of and would make sure that they stay current and don’t get vandalized. You could even link to them on you LinkedIn profile.

It would make an enormous difference to the quality of Wikipedia year over year. One can think of wiki-how and other pages that could be improved using the same model.

There are other reasons. For example, Wikipedia has holes. Not all of these line up with classes being taught, but some might. Let’s take one example…


Wikipedia has an entry for 5-1-1, the phone number one calls in some U.S. states for road conditions. It also has an entry for 9-1-1, the number one calls in North America for emergency services. And, while it has an entry for 8-1-1, the “call before you dig” number in the U.S., it’s kinda stale. One paragraph:

All 811 services in the U.S. will end up using 611 by early 2007, as the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in March 2005 made 811 the universal number for the 71 regional services that coordinate location services for underground public utilities in the U.S.[1][dated info] Currently, each of these “call before you dig” services, has its own 800 number, and the FCC and others want to make it as easy as possible for everyone planning an excavation to call first. This safety measure not only prevents damage that interrupts telecommunications, but also the cutting of electricity, water mains, and natural gas pipes. Establishment of an abbreviated dialing number for this purpose was required by the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002.

That last link takes you to one of those “Wikipedia does not have an article with this exact name” places. The “call before you dig” link redirects to Utility location. There you’ll find this paragraph:

One-call, Miss Utility, or Underground Service Alert are services that allow construction workers to contact utility companies, who will then denote where underground utilities are located via color-coding those locations. As required by law and assigned by the FCC, the 8-1-1 telephone number will soon be used for this purpose across the United States.

Well, it’s already being used. And it’s way freaking complicated, because there’s this very uneven overlap of entities — federal government, state goverenments, regional associations, and commercial entities, to name a few — that all have something to say.

For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA. Right on their front page, they tell you April is Safe Digging Month. Good to know. April of what year? Next to a blurred emblem with an 811 over a shovel (a poor version the above, which comes from the Utility Notification Center of Colorado) and a horribly blurred graphic proclaiming WE SUPPORT SAFE DIGGING MONTH, a Call Before You Dig link leads to a page that explains,

Guidance for implementing safe and effective damage prevention for underground utilities was established by the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), a national organization representing all underground utility stakeholders. Calling before you dig is the first rule to remember when conducting underground related activities, no matter what the job is. The law requires you to phone the “One-Call” center at 8-1-1 at least two days prior to conducting any form of digging activity.

No link to the Common Ground Alliance. That org (a domain squatter has its .org URL, so it’s a .com) explains that it’s “a member-driven association dedicated to ensuring public safety, environmental protection, and the integrity of services by promoting effective damage prevention practices.” Its news page mentions that, among other things, August 11 is “8-11 Day”. It has a press release template in Word format. It also has news that “MGH Hired as CGA 811 Awareness Contractor” in .pdf. Within that one finds MGH’s website URL, where one finds that the agency is @mghus, which may be the hippest thing in this whole mess.

Digging farther, one finds that there is an call811.com, which appears to be another face of the Common Ground Alliance. (If you’re interested, here are its “sponsors and ambassadors”.)

Also involved is the American Public Works Association. Apparently the APWA is the outfit behind what LAonecall (one of the zillion of these with similar names) calls “the ULCC Uniform Color Code using the ANSI standard Z53.1 Safety Colors”. APWA must have published it at one point, but you won’t find it on its website. Hey, Google doesn’t. Though it does find lots of other sites that have it. Most are local or regional governmental entities. Or utilities like, say, Panhandle Energy. Here’s the graphic:


Here in New England (all of it other than Connecticut, anyway), the public face of this is Dig Safe System, Inc., which appears to be a nonprofit association, but there’s nothing on the site that says wtf it is — though it is informative in other respects. It does say, on its index page,

What is Dig Safe ®?

State laws require anyone who digs to notify utility companies before starting, and for good reason. Digging can be dangerous and costly without knowing where underground facilities are located.

Dig Safe ystem, Inc. is a communication network, assisting excavators, contractors and property owners in complying with state law by notifying the appropriate utilities before digging. Dig Safe®, a free service, notifies member companies of proposed excavation projects. In turn, these member utilities respond to the work area and identify the location of underground facilities. Callers are given a permit number as confirmation.

Member utilities, or contracted private locators, use paint, stakes or flags to identify the location of buried facilities. Color coding is used to identify the type of underground facilities… (and the same color coding as above)

I found out all of this — and much more — while I was researching for my column in the November issue of Linux Journal, which has Infrastructure the issue’s theme. I’m leveraging my leftovers here, closing one tab after another in my browser.

I’m also interested in approximately everything, one of which is the official-looking public graffiti on the ground all over the place. These are known locally as “dig safe markings”. At least that piece of the scattered one-call/call-before-you-dig/8-1-1 branding effort has taken root, at least here.

Anyway, I’d love to see a Wikipedia entry or two that pulls all this together. Maybe I should write it, but I’m busy. Hey, I’ve done this much already. Some actual experts ought to pick up the ball and post with it.

Which brings us back to Mark’s suggestion in the first place. Have a class do it.

Hey, @mghus, since you’re in Baltimore, how about  suggesting a Wikipedia page project to The Civil & Environmental Engineering Department at UMBC?

Maybe for 8-11 Day?

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When we went looking for an apartment here a couple years ago, we had two primary considerations in addition to the usual ones: walking distance from a Red Line subway stop, and fiber-based Internet access. The latter is easy to spot if you know what to look for, starting with too many wires on the poles. After that you look for large loops among the wires. That means the wiring contains glass, which breaks if the loops are too small. The apartment we chose has other charms, but for me the best one is a choice between three high speed Internet services: Comcast, Verizon FiOS and RCN. Although Comcast comes via coaxial cable, it’s a HFC (hybrid fiber-coax) system, and competes fairly well against fiber all the way to the home. That’s what Verizon FiOS and RCN provide.


We chose Verizon FiOS, which gives us 20Mb symmetrical service for about $60/month. The 25 feet between the Optical Network Terminal box and my router is ironically provided by old Comcast cable TV co-ax. (Hey, if Comcast wants my business, they can beat Verizon’s offering.)

My point is that we live where we do because there is competition among Internet service providers. While I think competition could be a lot better than it is, each of those three companies still offer far more than what you’ll find pretty much everywhere in the U.S. where there is little or no competition at all.

The playing field in the skies above sidewalks is not pretty. Poles draped with six kinds of wiring (in our case electrical, phone, cable, cable, fiber, fiber — I just counted) are not attractive. At the point the poles become ugly beyond endurance, I expect that the homeowners will pay to bury the services. By the grace of local regulators, all they’ll bury will be electrical service and bundles of conduit, mostly for fiber. And they won’t bury them deep, because fiber isn’t bothered by proximity to electrical currents. In the old days (which is still today in most fiber-less places), minimum separations are required between electrical, cable and phone wiring — the latter two being copper. In Santa Barbara (our perma-home), service trenching has to be the depth of a grave to maintain those separations. There’s no fiber yet offered in Santa Barbara. At our house there the only carrier to provide “high” speed is the cable company, and it’s a fraction of what we get over fiber here near Boston.

All this comes to mind after reading D.C. Court Upholds Ban on MDU Contracts: FCC prevents new exclusive contracts and nullifies existing ones, by John Eggerton in Broadcasting & Cable.  It begins, “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Monday upheld an FCC decision banning exclusive contracts between cable companies and the owners of apartments and other multiple-dwelling units (MDU).”

The rest of the piece is framed by the long-standing antipathy between cable and telephone companies (cable lost this one), each as providers of cable TV. For example,

Not surprisingly, Verizon praised the decision. It also saw it as a win for larger issues of access to programming:

“This ruling is a big win for millions of consumers living in apartments and condominiums who want nothing more than to enjoy the full benefits of video competition,” said Michael Glover, Verizon senior VP, deputy general counsel, in a statement. “In upholding the ban on new and existing exclusive access deals, the Court’s decision also confirms the FCC’s authority to address other barriers to more meaningful competitive choice and video competition, such as the cable companies’ refusal to provide competitors with access to regional sports programming.”

Which makes sense at a time in history when TV viewing still comprises a larger wad of demand than Internet use. This will change as more and more production, distribution and consumption moves to the Internet, and as demand increases for more Internet access by more different kinds of devices — especially mobile ones.

Already a growing percentage of my own Internet use, especially on the road, uses cellular connectivity rather than wi-fi (thanks to high charges for crappy connectivity at most hotels). Sprint is my mobile Internet provider. They have my business because they do a better job of getting me what I want: an “air card” that works on Linux and Mac laptops, and not just on Windows ones). Verizon wanted to charge me for my air card (Sprint’s was free with the deal, which was also cheaper), and AT&T’s gear messed up my laptops and didn’t work very well anyway.

In both cases — home and road — there is competition.

While I can think of many reforms I’d like to see around Internet connectivity (among citizens, regulators and regulatees), anything that fosters competition in the meantime is a Good Thing.

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In The Office of Connectivity Advocacy, Bob Frankston argues for something we’ve needed a long time: prying the Net from the regulatory grips of telecom and cablecom, both of which are inside the FCC and part of a regulatory mess that traces back past the 1996 and 1934 telecoms acts, all the way to the railroad thinking and legislation that modeled those acts.

What we need, Bob says, is to re-frame the Net outside of telecom (which includes cablecom as well). The Net needs to be more than just the third act in a “Triple Play” sold by phone and cable companies. It needs to be more — and other — than just a “service” we get from monopolists operating in an old regulatory habitat.

Inside our homes we do not negotiate with, or pay, a “printing service” to use our printers. Nor are our phone and cable companies required to hook our computers and other appliances together inside our homes. As a result, there is no issue of speed, no need for “broadband”, because we enjoy much limitless network speeds without a “service provider” in the middle.

Some specifics:

We need a “Connectivity Strategy” with a champion; a “Connectivity Advocate” who is outside the FCC and is thus can focus on a positive agenda. “Internet Connectivity” is not a telecommunications service but something new. It is based on the idea that we can create our own solutions out of imperfect resources. And it has proven to be an exceptionally powerful idea.

It has allowed us to create new solutions by focusing on the end points of relationships rather than all the myriad points between. We’ve seen a similar dynamic with the interstate (defense) highway system that has been credited with adding trillions of dollars to the economy. The Internet-connectivity has the potential to do far more because it doesn’t have the limits of the roads and demand creates supply.

The challenge is to overcome the artifacts that we confuse with the powerful idea. We happened to have repurposed existing telecommunications infrastructure and thus the idea has become captive of the incumbents whose business of charging for transporting bits as a service is threatened. To add to this confusion we can easily spoof existing telecommunications services ourselves but still act as if only a carrier can provide the services.

Instead of spending so much time and effort forcing connectivity into a service framing we need to be able to focus on connectivity from first principles. After all, the Internet (as connectivity) and Telecom have no intrinsic relationship beyond their common use of electromagnetism to transport bits.

By having an Office of Connectivity Advocacy (I’m open to a better title) outside the FCC we can have a positive and proactive strategy. We have abundant existing resources that are lying fallow either because we don’t recognize what we have or are forbidden from competing with those who control are very means of communicating and the vital information paths we use for commerce.

So look at it this way. What we have inside the free spaces of our own homes is connectivity. What we have outside of our homes, through telco and cable systems, is broadband. The latter may seem desirable, but only in the absence of free (as in liberty, not price) alternatives.

Bob sees the Internet less as a physical infrastructure of CFR (copper, fiber and radios) than as a “bit commons” to which we all contribute. It’s an ocean rather than canals across a desert. Its nature is one of abundance, not scarcity. One can only make it scarce, which is what phone and cable companies do, even as they increase our broadband speeds to larger fractions of what we have at home for free.

Bob has specific recommendations for what an Office of Connectivity Advocacy would do. Read them and give Bob (and the Transition Team) constructive feedback. Here’s part of his post:

Initially the OCA would be charged with:

  • Empowering communities and individuals to create their own solutions using common facilities – the bit commons.
  • Education and research focused on achieving and taking advantage of end-to-end connectivity.
    • Educating Congress to understand the meaning and value of connectivity. Ideally it would play the role of providing a first-principles reality check rather than just checking for conformance to regulations. For example, a call is completed when the message gets through, not when a phone rings.
    • Assist the government in its own use of technology both for its own use and as an example for others. It could encourage technologies that have wide market appeal rather than just those that can conform to government RFPs.
    • Developing enlightened investment strategies which don’t try to capture all of the value.
    • Supporting research in using networking rather than the networks themselves.
    • Supporting research in how to get more out of existing physical facilities as well as encouraging new technologies.
    • Developing decentralized protocols for connectivity rather than today’s provider-centric IP
    • Working to simplify building applications using public connectivity (the bit commons). This could be mundane telemedicine, community information or …
  • Acting as an advocate for a transition from a telecom framing to a connectivity framing:
    • Evaluating existing assets and business practice afresh without the century old technical and policy presumptions.
    • Working towards a bit commons or common infrastructure including removing the artificial distinctions between wired and unwired bits.
    • Assisting in transitioning the existing telecommunications industry to industries supporting and taking advantage of connectivity.

At first glance the idea of the OCA may seem fanciful but it’s far easier to start afresh than trying to struggle out of the mire of the existing Regulatorium. We didn’t build the automobile by modifying stage coaches – we just used our understanding of wheeled vehicles to start afresh.

Starting afresh is essential to the telcos and cablecos as well. They need to see the Internet as something more, and other, than just a “service” they provide. Their existing phone and cable TV business models are in trouble. Charging for Net access is no gold mine, either. They need to start looking for ways of making money because of the Net and not merely with it. This is what Google and Amazon have done with “cloud” services. (Many of Google’s are in this list here. Amazon’s are here.) The only thing keeping the phone and cable companies from being in similar or allied businesses is a lack of imagination. Also a lack of appreciation for advantages of incumbency other than the ability to charge folks for broadband alone. These companies have waterfront property on the Net’s ocean. They also have direct relationships with customers. Those relationships can be used for much more than billing and essential services alone.

It would be much easier for these guys to start thinking outside their boxes if the Net were split off from the phone and cable regulatoria. And that Nick Carr’s Big Switch would happen a lot faster. (By the way, for thinking outside the box, it’s fun to read Nick’s post on Microsof’ts “trailer park” based cloud infrastructure.)

I wrote here,

Phone and cable companies today are in a lousy position to run the Internet business. Telephony and Cable TV are railroads and steamships. They “carry” the Net as a “service”, but the Net isn’t essentially a service. It’s just a way to connect things. Connectivity is what matters. Not “broadband”, much as it appeals within the context of phone and cable companies’ limited offerings and imaginations. Who will imagine what can be done when connectivity is freed up? Phone and cable companies? I’d rather bet on the people leaving those companies.

If phone and cable companies want to attract rather than lose its most original engineers, they it would help if they got out of the old regulatory frame and into a new one that separates the Net from their legacy monopolies.

More about Bob.

Bonus link: Beyond Telecom: Bob Frankston on the Future We Make for Ourselves. It’s is an interveiw I did with Bob earlier this year, for Linux Journal.

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