Category Archives: Technology

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.

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Off-the-Grid

In my libertarian, survivalist, or perhaps anarchical, dreams of purely autonomous individuals acting independently, but still maintaining modern conveniences, many technologies need to be delivered in radically different ways.

  • We could produce power on-site, without need of a grid, through windmills on our own property, through now efficient rooftop solar, through geothermal, or through our own wells.
  • We can unplug from the telecommunications monopolies through a peer-to-peer internet system, where everyone’s WiFi connects to their neighbors. (See e.g. LifeNet)
  • We collect and treat our own rainwater and use that to drink and clean, before discharging brown water onto our property, and other waste into a septic system.
  • We school our children at home, or in independent charter or private schools.

What is the transport analog? Could we effectively decentralize the provision of roads?

The first obvious answer is air transport. All we need are flying cars, autogyros, hovercraft, or helicopters, and who cares about roads, we just use the air as a commons. The problem of course is the much higher energy consumption (and thus cost) required per trip. While for long-distance trips commercial aviation consumes a similar amount of energy on a per-unit distance basis as cars, this is unlikely to be true for shorter distance trips.

The next obvious answer is water transportation. But we run into the problem identified in the Simpson’s episode satirizing KITT: Knightboat: the Crime-Solving Boat

Announcer: We now return to “Knightboat: the Crime-Solving Boat”.
Michael: Faster, Knightboat! We gotta catch those starfish poachers.
Knightboat: You don’t have to yell, Michael, I’m all around you.
Michael: Oh, no! They’re headed for land.
[the poachers ride onto the beach, jump on motorcycles, and
speed away]
Michael: We’ll never catch them now.
Knightboat: Incorrect: look! A canal.
Homer: Go, Knightboat, go!
Bart: Oh, every week there’s a canal.
Lisa: Or an inlet.
Bart: Or a fjord.
Homer: Quiet! I will not hear another word against the boat.

So sticking with the surface, the last time roads were solely the responsibility of the adjoining landowners, we had roads of poor quality – justifying governmental takeover (either directly or through quasi-governmental organization) to impose prices. Like today’s sidewalks, the property owners was once responsible for maintaining a right-of-way across their property. But they had little motive to do this well (the analogy with sidewalks remains), and a race-to-the-bottom ensued, where these paths were of poor quality, inconveniencing travelers. As the Good Roads Movements (in various forms through history) demanded higher quality for the good of travelers, and landowners had no incentives, government naturally took over.

So if we cannot fully decentralize roads to the point where people provide their own, and if we recognize they are not well-structured as a commons, perhaps we can privatize them in such a way that they are competitive, so I have some market choice in which roads I use. Theoretically, this has a lot of potential in providing differentiated levels of service.

At the local level, (“the last mile”) roads are clearly natural monopolies, as local streets have high fixed costs and low costs per use, and it does not make sense to have your house served by two competing roads (just as you have only one electric utility, one cable TV utility, one natural gas utility, and so on).

I can think of an exception in places with alleys. I can access my house via the street, or the back via an alley. In principal, one could imagine different organizations controlling the different roads, and charging different rates for use. In practice, the collection costs for pricing such a discrete system will likely be greater than the costs of maintaining the system. Further most places don’t have alleys, and retrofitting would be expensive.

The last mile has been privatized in some places (just think of homeowners association streets), but these “private road associations” are basically monopolies or clubs, and are not competitive, and could be thought of as the most local level of government.

It might be possible to privatize city streets. I have a thought experiment where traffic signals are private contractors with specific incentives and green time is auctioned. Implementing a congestion charge might be part of this. And while this might provide users some choice about which vendor to use, this is not self-provided transportation autonomy.

Long distance highways are private in many places (like “Socialist” France or China, but unlike most of the “Capitalist” US or UK). If these firms were competitive, on long trips, you might have a choice of suppliers for the line haul part of that journey if not the whole trip. A first step is transformation of DOTs into public utilities.

In the end, we have to concede a certain impracticality in being “off-the-street-grid”, much as our founding fathers suggested in the Postal Clause, as with Adam Smith writing at the same time (1776):

From Chapter 11 of the Wealth of Nations:

I.11.14
Good roads, canals, and navigable rivers, by diminishing the expence of carriage, put the remote parts of the country more nearly upon a level with those in the neighbourhood of the town. They are upon that account the greatest of all improvements. They encourage the cultivation of the remote, which must always be the most extensive circle of the country. They are advantageous to the town, by breaking down the monopoly of the country in its neighbourhood. They are advantageous even to that part of the country. Though they introduce some rival commodities into the old market, they open many new markets to its produce. Monopoly, besides, is a great enemy to good management, which can never be universally established but in consequence of that free and universal competition which forces every body to have recourse to it for the sake of self-defence. It is not more than fifty years ago, that some of the counties in the neighbourhood of London petitioned the parliament against the extension of the turnpike roads into the remoter counties. Those remoter counties, they pretended, from the cheapness of labour, would be able to sell their grass and corn cheaper in the London market than themselves, and would thereby reduce their rents, and ruin their cultivation. Their rents, however, have risen, and their cultivation has been improved since that time.

As I am quoted in Midwest Energy News:

“There isn’t a person in the United States who doesn’t get some use out of the roads,” says Levinson, who also writes the Transportationist blog. Even people who don’t drive still benefit from things like fire protection, ambulance services, and mail delivery — all of which depend on roads. “I suppose you could be Ted Kaczynski, but even he had to use the U.S. Postal Service to mail his bombs.”

The Perils of High Definition Television

I recently saw this image on TV: HiDefLoDefHiDefLoDef-thumb
Note, it is a high definition segment (of Thomas and Friends), embedded on a low-definition program, broadcast on a high-definition digital television channel (Twin Cities Public Television, TPT-2), filtered through the low-definition analog channels of my cable-TV system (Comcast) onto a low-definition television (Sharp). The picture was taken with an iPhone.
This is progress. If there is a new generation of high definition television, will my programs, to retain backward compatibility, be even smaller, until eventually it is only a pixel on my screen?