Category Archives: Networks

A personal history and forecast for Modems, or “Is @Comcast the worst company in America?”

Comcast edit

I first saw modems when I was in middle school, learning about computers in summer school, taking courses for geeks, and visiting friends whose parents were programmers and had awesome set ups where the telephone handset was put into a coupler for high speed (110 bits per second) communications with remote mainframes. But my first Apple ][+ did not have a modem, at least not while I was in high school, since there was almost nothing to connect to that I was interested in. We exchanged floppies in school to trade information. I was interested in the Cable TV industry (as an industry more than as a consumer) as well, and I subscribed to CableAge, but connecting computing and CableTV was talked about, but there was no obvious idea of how that work. The CableTV industry expected TV to be interactive (e.g. Qube), and computers were separate things (and in many ways still are)

My first sustained exposure to modems came when I had a co-op job in 1985 at Hayes Microcomputer Products of Norcross Georgia, where I helped assemble and test new products. Back then, Transyt [about which there is almost no evidence online] was thought to be the future of email. Communications was PC to PC. So people would try to send an email to your computer. But if your computer was off, this wouldn’t work. So in addition to the shiny metal modem on the side of your PC, you would have a shiny metal Transyt box stacked above it, which would always be on to receive email communications. The future looked different then. We knew Fiber Optic would be the pipeline of the future of communications. I dreamt of building out the Fiber Optic monopoly serving American homes.

Before I went to Berkeley in 1994, we only had an intra-net at MNCPPC/MCPD for email (and that was new) and calendaring, there was effectively no world wide web, and I used modems from home to log into servers, usually at work. I tested Prodigy, AoL and CompuServe from home but they were insufficiently interesting (and sufficiently slow). When I went to UC Berkeley, I either logged in on-campus, or used dial-up service and a true high-speed (28.8 kbps) modem for my internet service from home. I finally saw the World Wide Web, and given my perspective having dealt with modem communications protocols (kermit, xmodem, ymodem, zmodem to transfer files), it was great that graphically-heavy pages from CERN in Switzerland would render on my own computer with a minimum of fuss. Seemingly simple things like standards were a huge innovation in making the market for what became the world wide web.

I first got Cable Modem service when I lived in Berkeley and @Home became available, probably some time in 1997. High-speed was so much better than dial-up. I could see high-resolution movie previews, like the Phantom Menace, which were awesome in their detail. When I moved to Minneapolis, Cable Modem was not available. I lived near my office the first year, so I did not even have a computer at home. Later I moved my work computer to home (it was my computer), and got a computer at the office and got home internet, but I downgraded to Visi DSL (who are wonderful people dealing with terrible constraints), but when we moved to our current house, we got Time Warner Roadrunner service. Time Warner traded its Minneapolis franchise to Comcast on a very dark day for customer service.

As with everyone else, we rented our cable modem from the cable TV monopoly. At some point in the mid 2000s they became available to purchase, but standards were changing quickly. Finally, on May 9, 2011 I bought my cable modem. Shortly thereafter it arrived, I installed it (with the knowledge and acquiescence of my local Cable TV, who continued to send me bits over the system of tubes we call the Internet). After successful installation of the cable modem that I owned, I returned to the Cable TV company the cable modem box. We know this was acknowledged by the Cable TV company because my bill was reduced.

I should have done this years earlier. At $90.87 it paid for itself in about 11 months of use. If you plan to stay in your residence for at least a year, don’t expect a major technology shift within the next year, and have a minimal amount of technical competency, buy your own cable modem. That they overcharge for Cable Modems is a good business while it lasts, but exploiting your customers is a Customer Service Problem. (Customer Service Problem #1)

ModemOrder

At any rate, the ability of customers bring their own devices to networks dates back millennia. People have long brought their own vehicles to publicly owned road networks. There have also been various regulations about things like weights and sizes of vehicles, wheel widths, and so on, to prevent damage to the network. Rail networks are typically organized differently of course, though a few countries are again testing multiple carriers on commonly owned track (the UK). In electrical networks, it has long been understood that people plug their own devices into the grid, via an outlet, to take electricity, and it is more common now that people can actually sell electricity to the grid. While some electrical utilities still will sell or rent you appliances, there is no assumption that the utility owns your appliances.

Since the Carterfone Decision, other customer-owned equipment have been allowed to be connected to the telephone network. Sadly this doesn’t quite apply to the US wireless industry yet. Cable companies however are required to allow you to have your own cable modem.

I recently got a letter telling me I am not being billed for my monthly modem rental (attached). Well of course not, I own my modem. I have never received a letter from the phone company asking me to prove ownership of a handset, or from the electric utility to prove ownership of my stove. (Customer Service Problem #2) [Why was this a letter, and not an email from Comcast to my Comcast account? Who reads mail anymore anyway? I was lucky I actually opened it.] The charitable view is that Comcast must have lost control of its inventory system, since they knew enough to not bill me, and then decided to. The cynical view is they know this, and just want to see how many customers do not notice. Should I ascribe malice or incompetence?

Now we know Comcast has such a bad reputation they have tried to change the name of their cable services to Xfinity (what does that even mean?). (Wouldn’t it have made more sense to keep the Comcast name for the extant Comcast products, and adopt a new overarching name for the holding company that also owns NBC Universal.)

So I called the number on the letter, and explained. I was not sure the guy got it, but he said I wouldn’t be billed. Notably, the phone tree you get when you call the phone number on the letter is not at all helpful, and you have to tell your customer address, name, and Social Security number to the automated phone software, and again to the representative, an infuriating redundancy. (Customer Service Problem #3)

I tweeted it @comcast. Comcast Twitter’s representative responded (her job must be to deal with annoying, irate customers, serving as the smiling face of the Cable Monopolist). She was very nice, but said that while my billing was straightened out, the ownership was not and someone would call me.

He did, and left a message, with a phone number, which I called back, which turned out to be a number that outsiders cannot call. (Customer Service Problem #4)

I called the regular number, (repeat Customer Service Problem #3) and the person who eventually picked up could not deal with it and put me on hold for 9 minutes, before the call was eventually disconnected. (Customer Service Problem #5)

I tweeted it again. Comcast’s Twitter representative apologized and said they would call back.

The person called me back, and said I must fax proof of ownership to a local number Fax # 651 493 5287. Two problems with this sentence: first the word “must”, second the word “fax”. At first I was annoyed, but then I saw the juicy irony. I confirmed that they wanted a fax. I asked about email. The Comcast staff person who must enter this into databases doesn’t take email. (Customer Service Problem #6)

So Comcast, a large Internet Service Provider, that sells email services, and has for over 10 years, does not allow customers to email them, and still uses Faxes. Comcast has not embraced the idea of dogfooding.

I was told “If you don’t want to be charged for the modem you have to do this.” So I have to prove I own something that has been in my house for two and half years on demand. I pointed out most American homes do have email and don’t have fax machines. (Customer Service Problem #7) I pointed out I would mock them on Twitter (which I have done).

Fortunately, I bought the modem via Amazon, which is not a clueless bureaucracy, and they had the record. I printed a PDF, and tried to figure out if there were still free e-fax services. Had I purchased it elsewhere, in the physical world, getting proof of purchase would be much harder. As surely Comcast must know.

There are. I tried one: myfax.com, which said they were queued up and would send an email to confirm. For whatever reason, this email never arrived, but at least I never paid for it. Figuring that it would be risky to wait, I tried a second: GotFreeFax.com, which did seem to work (in that I got confirmations from them they sent it). So I hope Comcast has received this fax, which I should not have had to send. Comcast has not confirmed by email or phone that it has received this information. (Customer Service Problem #8)

So this is a long-way around of asking: why are we stuck with the Comcast monopoly?

In my neighborhood, CenturyLink (which sounds like a golf-course for a retirement village in Florida, who names these things?) is the local wireline phone carrier. They offer high-speed internet in some neighborhoods. Not mine (I don’t consider 1.5 Mbps high-speed anymore). They have no details on when this will arrive.

There are a few WiMax services in Minneapolis (e.g. Nextera), but bandwidth is only up to 6Mbps, which does not seem fast enough. US Internet is offering fiber optic in a few neighborhoods. Not mine. Satellite internet has ok speed (up to 15 Mbps down, still below cable), but very low caps and slow upload speed and high prices. Google Fiber is just a test case, and not in Minneapolis. The US is notoriously low on the list of internet speeds (31st according to Ookla, but I doubt the methodology is accurate, since there is a lot of selection bias).

For short periods of time, I get speeds on my 4G phone comparable to cable modem, but I don’t know if this sustains, and I cannot use tethering without giving up my unlimited data package from being an early ATT iPhone customer, and I certainly don’t want to pay by the bit if I can avoid it.

Fortunately, 5g is coming, offering higher speed (I have seen both 1 Gbps and 300 Mbps down and up, so who knows until it is closer to deployment, in either case, this is better than Cable companies currently provide, though of course, they could respond), but this is looking to be around 2020. I believe (religiously) this will be the replacement for not only existing wireless communications but also wireline communications, just as phone lines are dying, cable lines are next to be replaced by mobile. Video will have gone from the air (broadcast) to the cable, and back to the air as its primary delivery mechanism. (There is also G.Fast over phone wires promising 500 Mbps within 500 m of fiber node)

Monopolies don’t get better, they get replaced. Cable companies as purveyors of television are already losing market share. I suspect (and certainly hope) Cable companies as the purveyors of high-speed internet will be as obsolete as the telegraph, mail, and dare I say it, FAX machine within a decade. Fortunately, wireless remains a competitive market in the US, Verizon and AT&T won’t be allowed to merge anytime soon (though we know that they will eventually, that’s how networks always go, consolidation is the natural state of mature networks to exploit monopoly power economies of scale). It’s just too bad I have to wait another 6 years before wireless nirvana.

I fully expect Comcast to disrupt or monitor my service, that’s what disgruntled employees at telecom companies or the NSA do, and it is quite clear that Comcast does not have gruntled employees.

+++

Why must I travel, why can’t I tele-conference

Two times in two days last week I was asked to fly to an east coast city for a half-day meeting. The meeting organizers offered to pay my travel expenses. I asked to save the travel money and tele-conference in via some/any web-based video technology. The organizers declined, saying they weren’t set up to do that.

Seriously, you can pay more than a $1000 to bring me in considering airline tickets, hotel, ground transportation, and meals, but you can’t get your act together to have a room with wireline internet, a camera enabled laptop (aren’t they all now), and Skype or FaceTime or Google Hangouts or any of a hundred other services at a marginal monetary outlay of zero and a time outlay of damn close to that?

I hypothesize one source of the problem is the technological backwardness of the governmental/consulting/advocacy/transportation sector. This is a process of mutual causation. Technological backwardness deters the technologically advanced from entering the sector, reinforcing the backwardness. It’s a wonder there are PCs on people’s desks. It’s no wonder we see no progress. I fully anticipate major changes to the transportation sector to come from outside actors, much like the Google self-driving vehicle because of this innovation aversion.

The second source of the problem might be incentives. I hypothesize the meeting organizers budgeted for travel, and not for information technology. They have no incentive not to spend the budget, the money has to get spent.

The third source of the problem is also incentives. My travel time costs them nothing. My video conferencing takes them a few minutes. No matter their few minutes are a lot less time than my travel, they (not me) are spending it.

I realize video-conferences are not quite as high a resolution in audio or video as being present, and in the hands of the incompetent have meeting-disruptive technical difficulties. But they are good enough for the purposes of this kind of conversation, for which conference calls are often used.

It is not that I object to spending your money, or actually want to save you money. I am not noble in this regard. It is that travel is a major hassle, filled with danger and uncertainty. This is often not worth it for me anymore especially for a less than one-day meeting in a city I have seen plenty of times where

I am doing you a favor by being present (you asked me to attend, not vice versa). Moreover, I don’t want to eat another dinner at an east coast airport.

Update: Bill Lindeke suggests: @trnsprttnst perhaps transportation scholars are inherently biased towards transporting things/people

Grids are for squares: Three reasons to consider alternatives to rectilinear street networks

Just as we have cut the earth into a grid of latitude and longitude (and knowing that each “block” of 1 degree latitude by 1 degree longitude gets smaller and smaller as we approach the poles), we similarly cut our cities and rural areas into a finer mesh from that same grid. Much of this arises from the various large scale ordinance surveys that took places in the Americas, Australia, and India. There are of course grids dating much earlier, to Miletus and Mohenjo Daro among many others. Not all grids are aligned with longitude and latitude, sometimes they align with local landscape features, but most of the modern ones are. (Where grids of different alignments come together, interesting spaces are created). Not all grids are squares, most are more like rectangles.

So why should we have 90-degree rectilinear grids?

The arguments in favor are that it:

  1. simplifies construction and makes it easier to maximize the use of space in buildings,
  2. simplifies real estate by making the life of the surveyor easier,
  3. simplifies intersection management by reducing conflicts compared to a 6-way intersection,
  4. is embedded in existing property rights and so impossible to change.

We in the modern world need not be bound to the primitive tools of the early surveyor, the primitive signal timings of the 1920s traffic engineer, or the primitive construction techniques of early carpenters. And while for existing development we might be locked into existing property rights, for new developments that doesn’t follow.

The arguments against the rectilinear include that it:

  1. is among the least efficient way to connect places from a transportation perspective,
  2. reduces opportunities for interesting architecture,
  3. wastes developable space by overbuilding roads.

There are many designs for non-rectilinear street networks. Ben-Joseph and Gordon (2000) (Hexagonal Planning in Theory and Practice (Journal of Urban Design 5(3) pp.237-265)) summarize a number of the 19th and 20th century designs. Most are simple aesthetic choices, as in Canberra, the planned capital city of Australia, and don’t seem to relate to deeper urban organizational issues.
Muller
Rudolf Müller proposed The City of the Future: Hexagonal Building Concept for a New Division. Müller’s plan offsets the 60-degree streets so that they come together in 4-way rather than 6-way intersections (though they are still at 60-degrees and not bent to make 90-degree intersections). This ensures that the cells in the plan are not bisected by roads, and that they are instead hexagonal blocks. This plan loses a lot of areas to ornamental parks in the middle of streets.
The circuity increase associated with a 90-degree rather than 60-degree network is obvious. Circuity (the ratio of Euclidean to Network distance) would be minimized if roads were at 0-degree angles. The downside is that this Euclidean network where everyone traveled in a straight-line would literally “pave the earth“. Leaving aside the downsides for the environment of being so-paved, the more critical trade-off from a transportation perspective is construction costs. More roads are more expensive. So a network design trades-off travel costs accruing over time with the up-front construction and long-term maintenance costs. The optimal network design depends on the land use pattern it aims to serve. (And the land use pattern depends on the network design.) The City of Alonso or Von Thünen, with all jobs downtown merely requires a simple radial network to connect it. A polycentric or fully dispersed (homogeneous) city with everything spread uniformly across space begs for more cross-connections.

Charles Lamb’s City Plan has the streets hexsect the hexagonal cells. In this case, the blocks are really triangles.

There is a large literature on the network design problem. One useful paper: Pierre Melut and Patrick O’Sullivan (1974) A Comparison of Simple Lattice Transport Networks for a Uniform Plain, Geographical Analysis 6(2) pp. 163–173, says:

The objective is to compare construction and transport costs for triangular [60-degree], orthogonal [90-degree], and hexagonal [120-degree] regular lattices as transport networks serving a uniform, unbounded plain. The lattices are standardized so that the average distance from the elementary area to the edge is the same for each. This standardization results in equal construction costs for the three networks; thus, the comparison can be made in terms of route factors [circuity], which favors the triangular lattice over the other two.

Lamb
Because the circuitous network is less efficient, more network pavement and track and vehicle mileage must be provided to enable the same amount of transportation.

This wastes spaces that could be better allocated to non-transportation purposes.
The lattice itself comprises a single level in a hierarchical system. Selected links in a lattice can be reinforced to make them faster, attracting traffic. This process of reinforcement is natural with investment rules that favor more heavily trafficked routes and explains the hierarchy of roads. If it is based on simple reinforcement of existing links rather than creation of new links, that hierarchy will not affect the topology of the network.

Ask MetaFilter has an interesting thread on Comparing perimeters of arrays of hexagons vs. squares – geometry tiling resolved . A key point is that arranging hexagons into a square-like shape has a higher perimeter than arranging squares into a square-like shape.

__    __    __    __    __
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \
\__/  \__/  \__/  \__/  \__/
Diagram 1. Sample hex map

Jellicle wrote:

I think your problem is this – to minimize the perimeter of n hexagons, when you add each new hexagon to the previously-existing group, you have to add it in such a way that touches the most neighbors possible. You would never add a hexagon that touches only on one face if you could add it somewhere else where it touches two faces or three faces, right? If you look at diagram 1 here (which is hexes in a grid shape), you see several hexes at the four corners which touch only on two faces, while there are areas on the outer surface at the top and bottom where those hexes could be placed where they would touch on three faces instead of two. So simply moving those four corner hexes would reduce the perimeter without changing the surface area.

Yet we know the hexagon is efficient, it replicates the closest packing of circles. (Take a penny, surround it with pennies so that they are all tangent. The central penny touches six others.) Thus following the closest-packing argument, the hexagon as geometrical shape is not sufficient for efficiency, we must also arrange those shapes into an efficient pattern, in this case, something more like the Glinski Chess Board:
Glinski
Much of the inspiration for thinking about hex-maps comes from the gaming community, where such maps have been used since the 1961, when a Hex map was used for the Avalon Hill game Gettysburg. It has since become a standard that is widely used to represent directions of movement in games.

So, although we talk about “grids” as being necessary for connectivity, we can get even more connectivity if we think about a variety of different geometries. It would be a shame if we got locked into grid geometries for new developments when there are so many alternatives to be had.

See also: Home is Where the Hub Is.

ICA Workshop on Street Networks and Transport

ICAheader

I am on the program committee for the ICA Workshop on Street Networks and Transport:

“Street networks, as one of the oldest infrastructure of transport in the world, play a significant role in modernization, sustainable development, and human daily activities in both ancient and modern times. Although street networks have been well studied in a variety of engineering and scientific disciplines including for instance transport, geography, urban planning, economics and even physics, our understanding of street networks in terms of their structure and dynamics is still very limited to deal with real world problems such as traffic jams, pollution, and human evacuations in case of disaster management. Thanks to the rapid development of geographic information science and related technologies, abundant data of street networks have been collected for better understanding the networks’ behavior, and human activities constrained by the networks. This ICA workshop is intended to gather researchers together to present the state of the art research and studies, in an interdisciplinary setting, on street networks and transport. Suggested topics include, but not limited to as long as they address issues related to street networks and/or transport:

  • Spatial statistics and spatial analysis along networks
  • Topological analysis and space syntax
  • Pattern recognition with street networks
  • Map generalization on street networks Complexity measurement of street networks
  • Human evacuations and simulations
  • Transport modeling based on street networks
  • Geospatial analysis of the OpenStreetMap data

Submission
All manuscripts in a length of 6000-7000 words should be in English, single column, single-spaced with figures and tables within the text. The manuscripts in MS Word 2003 format should contain authors’ affiliation and email, abstract (no longer than 200 words), and up to five keywords. To submit, please use EasyChair at http://www.easychair.org/conferences/?conf=icaworkshop2013

In praise of contiguity | streets.mn

Now @ Streets.MN : In praise of contiguity :

“After seeing other places throughout the world, notably Toronto, London, Manhattan, any continental European city, even Washington DC, I believe the problem with making Minneapolis a first rate pedestrian city is the lack of contiguity. There are some really good walkable sections, but they are not connected well (or at all).”

Why Grids Matter and We Should Recreate Them At All Cost (Strictly for the ROI)

WALKABLE Dallas-Fort Worth: Why Grids Matter and We Should Recreate Them At All Cost (Strictly for the ROI):

“A dendritic system is defined by a branching structure that funnels movement in one direction. Whereas a conventional grid provides a multiplicity of routes. The key defining factor is choice. Think about this from where you live and you’re on your way to work or to pick up the kids or to get a gallon of milk. How many routes can you take? What if there is a wreck along the way? How many different modes of travel are quick and convenient?
There is quite a bit of talk about the emergent nature of cities as complex systems, but few really understand the applicability to how we design our cities and the dynamics of the process. What we have to understand is that emergence implies a second level of organization that is largely beyond our control. Why? Because we can only ‘design’ the first level of organization, whether it is a building or a road. Because designers are only one person or group working on one problem. The second order of ‘design’ happens when everybody else decides how to use the system. That can’t be designed en masse, only nudged in certain directions depending upon how well we understand the dynamics of this emergence.”

London’s black cabs to get free high-speed WiFi hotspots from early 2013 – The Next Web

If anyone was wondering why Google is interested in self-driving vehicles … imagine the future as robot black cabs. The Next Web: London’s black cabs to get free high-speed WiFi hotspots from early 2013

Linklist: November 12, 2012 Sandy Special Edition

Some Sandy links:
(1) Subway Recovery:
In general I am really impressed with the speed of the subway recovery. If periodic flooding does not destroy the network, maybe New York does not need to relocate or build really expensive defenses, just take a 1 or 2 week vacation every hurricane.
From WNYC: Subway Network Recovery animation

From NYT: New York Subways Find Magic in Speedy Hurricane Recovery
(2) Gas Rationing:

From NYT: In New York Gas Shortage, Missed Opportunities and Miscalculations

From NYT: Odd-Even License Plate Rules Have a History

We really need to invent/deploy gasoline-powered gas stations and refineries. It seems many stations had gas they could not pump for lack of electricity. Obviously lots of other problems as well, and I am sure there are risks of sparking near lots of gasoline, but this should be a solvable problem.

Trends in Metropolitan Network Circuity (working paper)

eqplots
David J. Giacomin, Luke S. James, and David M. Levinson (2012) Trends in Metropolitan Network Circuity. (Working Paper)

Because people seek to minimize their time and travel distance (or cost) when commuting, the circuity–the ratio of network distance traveled to the Euclidean distance between two points–plays an intricate role in the metropolitan economy. This paper seeks to measure the circuity of the United States’ 51 most populated Metropolitan Statistical Areas and identify trends in those circuities over the time period from 1990- 2010. With many factors playing a role such as suburban development and varying economic trends in metropolitan areas over this timeframe, much is to consider when calculating results. In general, circuity is increasing over time.