What I am Thankful for in 2015

ThanksgivingThanksgiving is upon us yet again and I’ve given some thought to those things in the industry and beyond that I am thankful for this year.

Net Neutrality: I am thankful for the net neutrality ruling, more as a consumer than as someone in the industry. From what I can see the largest ISPs and cellular companies had a big bag of nasty tricks waiting for all of us had it not passed. I feel like this ruling took back some of the power in the industry from the ISPs with the FCC as our watchdog. Now we need to wait a while more to see if the courts uphold the FCC. On the other hand, I am not so glad that net neutrality seems to have taken the Federal Trade Commission out of the picture for telecom. They were starting to take a hard look at monopoly abuses and one can hope the FCC will take up where they left off. There is some reassurance that the FTC says they will still play a role, but that role is clearly diminished.

Municipal Competition: I was glad to see the FCC tackle the prohibitions against municipal telecom. As somebody who works mostly with rural broadband issues, we need to encourage anybody, including cities and counties that are willing to tackle bringing broadband to rural places. I can understand why the large ISPs don’t want competition from municipal entities in big cities, but that still has not happened anywhere larger than Chattanooga and probably won’t. I have a harder time seeing why the large ISPs fight so vigorously against competition in rural areas where they don’t spend any capital to maintain their networks. These smaller communities are waking up to the fact that if they don’t take care of the broadband gap themselves that nobody else is likely to do so.

Inching Towards More Privacy: In this last year it became apparent to everybody that the NSA and a ton of commercial companies are spying on all of us. I love the parts of the industry that are taking the side of privacy. There’s Apple that is encrypting everything in a way that even they can’t decrypt. There’s a number of companies working on block chains and other forms of peer-to-peer communication that ought to be immune from snooping. And there are a number of web sites that now promise they aren’t tracking you. We have a long way to go, but it looks like people are starting to care about their privacy.

DOCSIS 3.1: I am thankful for technologies that are making broadband faster. The DOCSIS 3.1 technology that the cable companies are starting to implement will probably help the largest number of Americans get faster broadband. Several of the big cable companies are promising that they will offer faster speeds across the board. I think cable companies have finally awakened to the fact that it doesn’t cost them that much to give out more speed and it shelters them from the competition. And there s a slow but steady growth of fiber with companies like Google and CenturyLink leading the way. You will hear me whoopin’ and hollerin’ in this blog if somebody brings an affordable gigabit to my neighborhood.

Technology is Getting Better: The speed at which technology in and near the industry is improving is mind boggling. It seems like I hear about something new almost every day. This year saw 10 gigabit fiber terminals that are cheap enough for home and small business use. We’ve seen a plethora of improvements in OTT boxes like Roku and the gaming systems. 4K video has made it into the mainstream conversation in the last year. The speed and processing power of cellphones has literally doubled in the last year.

And My Readers: This marks my third Thanksgiving with this blog and I don’t seem to be running out of topics. I am truly thankful that people read this from time to time. I started writing this blog as a way to force myself to stay up with current events in the industry and it has done that in spades. I seem to learn something new every day, and for that I am most thankful.

The Alternate to Cable Cards

cablecardThe FCC just sent out for public comment a proposal to implement AllVid as an alternative to cable cards. AllVid was first introduced in 2011 by a group called the AllVid Tech Company Alliance that included Best Buy, Google, Sony and TiVo. AllVid was proposed as a universal adapter for all types of pay TV content on differing technology platforms like cable systems, satellite TV, VDSL systems, and fiber networks. This was basically going to be a universal cable card substitute that would work anywhere.

The FCC rejected the idea as costly and impractical. The original cable card order has been a boondoggle for years and only a small percentage of households ever went through the hassle of avoiding settop box fees from the cable companies. Even five years ago the FCC thought it was not realistic to think there could be a universal adapter that would work with all of the devices in the world. But since then the world of boxes that can receive cable signal has proliferated wildly making it hard to imagine a solution that would work with anything. There are now traditional cable companies sending programming to things like the Roku box and game consoles.

But the AllVid group apparently is good at lobbying and brought the idea back to the FCC again through the DSTAC (Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee), a formal committee under FCC auspices. This group was recently looking at what a post-cable card world might look like and AllVid got pushed back into the conversation. Because the DSTAC group recommended that the FCC ask for public comments the FCC sent the group’s report out, but nobody knows where the FCC might stand on the issue.

It’s impossible to think that there could even be a universal solution. The world of settop boxes is changing quickly. There is Time Warner Cable that says they want out of the settop business and are trialing both Roku and Xbox consoles as a replacement. There is Charter which builds the settop box into its base fee and doesn’t charge specifically for the settop box. As part of the attempt to buy Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks they told the FCC that the boxes are free to customers. It’s been reported that Comcast now has a proprietary box with its own flavors of features. Google supposedly has its own box that nobody knows much about.

And there has never been a cable card solution found for settop boxes that hand off IPTV networks used on DSL or fiber network and those companies all got waivers from the original cable card order.

What probably keeps the topic alive is that there is a very vocal minority of people in the country who love the cable card order. They will do anything to avoid paying a fee to the hated large cable companies. So one has to imagine that this group is also behind AllVid, which is reported to have some support on Capitol Hill.

But every reason why the FCC rejected this the first time is still true and now there are more reasons why this is a bad idea. If we really want a solution so that people don’t have to pay for a monthly settop box it ought to come from Congress. I think every company that sells video would be glad to sell boxes directly to users at cost who insist on having them. That way each company could sell whatever box they use and there would never be compatibility issues. But the AllVid folks seem to think that by somehow coming up with a solution that will work on all networks that there will be such a volume of sales that the price for the box will come down. That is wishful thinking and so the whole industry has to watch this be argued yet another time after we all thought it was put to bed.

How Long Does Fiber Last?

Copper wireI am asked all of the time how long fiber lasts. People want to know if they make the big investment in a fiber network whether they will get their money’s worth. And there is at least some reasons for the people to be confused. For example, I’ve seen opponents of municipal fiber networks say publicly that a new fiber network won’t last twenty years.

So how long does a fiber network last? The answer is – it depends mostly on how it is installed. While fiber is tough, it can be stressed during construction, which can significantly shorten its life. The number one cause of fiber damage during construction is damage caused when pulling fiber through ducts. There is almost no damage caused by either blowing or pushing fiber, making those the safest installation techniques. But it’s possible to overstress fiber when pulling, which will eventually result in it developing opacity. The opacity in fiber grows over time as very tiny cracks and stress points in the fiber grow larger and start deflecting light..

The second most common flaw in installed fiber is at splice points. Over time, as fiber expands and contracts from temperature changes, the splice points can shift tiny amounts and degrade the connection. Luckily, most damage from shifting splices can be fixed by re-splicing the fibers as they go bad over the years.

This does, though, speak to the issue of water damage to fiber. Water in itself doesn’t harm fiber, but if water gets into the sheath and freezes and melts over time it can either break splices or it can cause tiny flaws in the walls of the fiber to grow into bigger flaws. Over time, with enough little cracks and flaws, a given fiber can become unusable. So, just like with most other kinds of buried wires, care must be taken to keep water out of fiber lines in areas that will experience freezes.

But changing temperatures alone can do the same damage over time, so fiber that experiences wild temperature swings is not going to last as long as fiber that is protected from temperature extremes. Of course, burying fiber deep enough is possibly the best way to insure steady temperatures over time.

Fiber has gotten better over the years as manufacturers have improved manufacturing techniques. Today’s fibers are nearly perfect out of the manufacturing process and ought to last longer than fibers made thirty or forty years ago. The manufacturers have adopted techniques such as pre-stressing fiber during the manufacturing process (pulling it slightly) which pulls out any tiny flaws to keep them from getting bigger.

But none of what I said answers the question asked – how long will fiber last? Material scientists have been studying fiber since the 1980s and they have built models to predict how long fiber will last if properly installed. They look at all of the factors that can cause failure – how it was made, the presence of tiny flaws, factors that can cause cloudiness, the protection provided by the sheath, etc.

And what they found is very reassuring. Studies have shown that properly installed fiber will only have a chance of failure at a rate of 1 in 100,000 per kilometer per year between years 20 and 40 after installation. Statistics are funny things and that kind of rate is not easy to apply for a layman, but it ought to be obvious that this means very few failures for a normal fiber installation during that time frame. This means that fiber ought to easily last forty years and far beyond. Nobody will yet say how much further beyond, but I talked once to a few engineers from Corning and they told me that as long as it’s treated well that their best guess is at least 75 years. We’ll have to wait around to see if that is true.

The same scientists have studied real life applications of fiber and have calculated that the chances of buried fiber being cut is 1 in 1,000 per kilometer per year. This means it is 100 times more likely for a fiber to be cut than to have it fail from inherent flaws. Again, statistics like this aren’t straight-line ratios, but it you operate a 500-mile fiber network, this tells you that you can expect a fiber cut every year or so. And of course, some networks do worse than that. Outages from fiber cuts and the consequent weaknesses created by the repair splices are a far larger threat to your fiber network than any degradation of the fiber. So bury it deep!

Some Regulatory Shorts

FCC_New_LogoAs to be expected our regulators stay busy regulating. Not all of their decisions have widespread impact, but it’s always worth keeping an eye on what’s going on.

WiFi Blocking: The FCC continues to come down on hard on those in the hospitality industry that would stop people from using their own hot spots in or near hotels or other gathering places. You might recall, last year the FCC fined Marriott for blocking access to guests using their cellphones for WiFi. Marriott is one of those chains that charges extra for WiFi and so they were operating jammers that interfered with the ability of a smart phone to act as a hotspot.

The FCC continued with that theme and recently fined M.C. Dean $718,000 for blocking WiFi at the Baltimore Convention Center. They also fined Hilton Worldwide $25,000 for “apparent obstruction of an investigation” in the case. In August the FCC fined Smart City Holdings $750,000 for using technology at 28 convention centers that blocked cellphone and wireless routers from acting as hotspots.

As somebody who travels and who generally finds hotel WiFi to be inadequate, this is a welcome move. But it’s even more so for groups that rent space in a convention center. Some of those locations charge 6 digits for use of a convention center’s WiFi system, and the FCC is telling the hospitality industry that it is never okay to block WiFi.

Do Not Track Requests: The FCC voted earlier this month to not require web sites to honor Do Not Track requests. The group Consumer Watchdog had petitioned the FCC asking them to force companies to honor such requests. Today web sites can voluntarily honor privacy requests, but only a handful of large web sites do so. The group had hoped that since the FCC had elected to regulate privacy practices for ISPs as part of the net neutrality rules that they might carry this forward to the web.

But the FCC declined to make such a ruling. They said that they are not in the business of regulating ‘edge providers’, meaning the companies that offer web content. I keep an eye on privacy and use web sites that don’t track people whenever I can like the Duck Duck Go search engine. But I am leery about the FCC getting into the business of regulating the behavior of web service providers. When you look at some of the consequences of such actions it’s not necessarily good for anybody. Even in England, which we always assume is a lot like us, the government has proscribed a large list of web content that is off limits unless people opt into them. I personally am glad the FCC doesn’t want to cross that line. I think back to all of the wasted effort they spent on the ‘seven dirty words’ on TV and radio and don’t think we need a repeat of that.

The FCC and Privacy. In what seems like an extreme order, the FCC just fined Cox Communications $595,000 for a security breach that exposed the records of 61 customers. That’s almost $10,000 per customer.

This is the first such privacy ruling by the FCC since this was always under the purview of the Federal Trade Commission until the FCC asserted primary responsibility for regulating ISPs as common carriers. I find the order to be puzzling. The breach was apparently due to a hacker. Cox self-reported the breach and said that they had processes in place that found the breach quickly and that limited it from happening to a larger number of customers. To me that sounds like what companies are supposed to do and I’m not sure that any company these days can be completed immune from hackers. I know we won’t know the details of exactly what Cox did wrong, but it doesn’t feel like this is a case where the punishment fits the crime.

One only has compare this to the way that the very massive data breaches have been handled for companies like Target, J.P. Morgan Chase and a number of other banks, and even from several branches of the federal government. None of them got significant fines and the general thinking is that the market itself provides a lot of punishment in lost business and in the cost of dealing with the data breach. The size of the FCC fine seems out of line, and because of that every ISP ought to be reviewing the way you store and protect customer data. You can’t afford not to, and perhaps that is the message the FCC was making.


Senior Customers

elderly-people-crossingI have worked with a number of carriers who largely avoid building fiber or any new facilities to neighborhoods that have a larger than average share of senior households. And I think perhaps we are getting to a point in time where that is no longer the best strategy.

Pew Research Center just released a poll showing the change over time of the use of social media by various age groups. They have been asking this question for a number of years. Their polls show that back in 2006 around 40% of people under 29 used social media but barely anybody else. But over the years the usage has grown for each age group. As one would still expect, around 90% of those under 29 now use social media, but the percentage for those over 65 has grown to 35% and is growing quickly.

You don’t have to go back very many years to see a different story. As recently as 2012 only 20% of those over 65 used social media and in 2010 it was only 10%. But the older demographic is quickly catching up to those between 50 and 64, where, even now, only 50% use social media.

This survey didn’t give any reasons why the use of social media is growing so fast. But one easy explanation is that as the population ages, the younger groups of people become the next older group. I just read recently that there are now more millennials in the country than baby boomers. The baby boomers, along with everyone else, are aging and the first boomers are now 69.

Not all of my clients shy away from seniors. I have a few clients that for years have held training sessions to help seniors get over their fear of computers, and this has paid off. They tell me that once a senior gets on the Internet that they are some of their best customers. They pay on time and they are loyal.

I happen to live in a community in Florida with a lot of seniors who love the Florida sun in the winter. I can tell you that, at least around here, the community itself is drawing seniors onto the Internet. It’s not unusual for community centers and other centers of senior of activity to prefer to communicate via the web. It’s also not unusual around here for doctors to want to do everything on the web. So people who might have had no other reason to get onto the Internet are getting drawn in by daily life.

I don’t think anybody should expect that seniors are going to pony up a high price for the fastest Internet connections, and so I would imagine that Google doesn’t do as well in this segment of the population as they probably do with families with kids at home. But that doesn’t mean that seniors want the slowest product either. My mother-in-law, who lives in Texas, had a 40 Mbps cable modem and was pleased last year when Time Warner increased her speed to 75 Mbps due to competition with Google.

We are also on the verge of a time when seniors will become very demanding broadband customers. There are over 100 tech companies reported to be looking at products that can help seniors stay in their homes longer. All of these products rely on video cameras and other monitors that are going to make seniors care about bandwidth. If buying bigger bandwidth can keep somebody in their home for an extra decade you are going to see the elderly shelling out for broadband and demanding that it is fast enough to satisfy their needs.

I still think the idea of carriers finding ways to reach out to senior can pay dividends. I have a very large extended family and every year I see a few more of my older cousins and relatives pop up on Facebook. And I am sad to report that it’s not just kids who take selfies! I think the older generation in my family has a lot more fun with the Internet these days than the kids.

Cable Companies Try Skinny Bundles

Comcast truckWhile all of the cable companies and their trade organizations publicly deny that cord cutting is a real phenomenon, in this most recent quarter most of the large cable companies have announced a skinny bundle package delivered over the web. It’s hard to think that these packages are aimed at anybody but cord cutters and in fact, one has to wonder if they might lure more people away from the big packages.

CEO Rob Marcus of Time Warner Cable says that their skinny bundle is an attempt to get rid of settop boxes. TWC just announced in New York and New Jersey that all cable customers can now use Roku instead of settop boxes. He said that TWC has a long-term strategy to get out of the settop box business, which is a big expense for the company and something that customers really don’t like paying for. I know that for most of my clients the monthly settop box rentals are one of the most profitable parts about selling cable TV and so his statement puzzles me a bit. But my clients are not working in major metropolitan markets and perhaps the total cost of tracking and swapping boxes is different for a large company.

But since TWC offers Roku for everybody I’m not sure that settop boxes are a very good explanation for their skinny bundle. TWC is now trialing a skinny bundle in New York City, available only to its data customers. It starts at $10 per month for 20 channels with options to add movie channels and other networks running up to $50 per month. That sure looks to be aimed at cord cutters.

And most of the other cable companies are also limiting their offerings to their own data customers. For instance, Comcast has launched a trial in the Boston area of a skinny bundle they are branding as Stream for their own data customers at $15 per month, including all taxes and fees. The package includes local networks, HBO, and some streaming movies. They plan to take this nationwide in 2016. The unique feature of the Comcast product is that it is not truly an OTT product since it doesn’t use the shared data stream but is delivered with separate bandwidth on the cable network.

Charter has launched what they are calling Spectrum TV. It starts at $12.99 per month and comes with a free Roku 3 player. This bundle contains 19 channels including the four major off-air networks. For an additional $7 per month customers can add more channels including ESPN, and for even more money customers can add HBO or Showtime. .

CableVision launched packages back in April of this year that includes a digital antenna for receiving local channels. They are offering a 50 Mbps data product plus the antenna plus HBO for $44.90 per month.

This isn’t limited to just the cable companies. CenturyLink is supposedly getting ready to trial a skinny bundle for its data customers. There are no details yet of pricing or line-up.

This all got started with Dish networks and their Sling TV product. Unlike these other products that, for now, are only available to the data customers of each ISP, Sling is available to anybody with a fast enough connection. I previously reviewed Sling TV and it had a lot of problems. I tried it during the first football game of the season and it was so bad that I abandoned it. I just watched Maryland beat Georgetown in basketball last night and the video was still out of sync with the audio. It’s getting better, but is still not as good as cable TV.

It’s interesting that most of the companies like CenturyLink say their skinny bundles are aimed at cord cutters, but even more specifically are aimed at millennials. I look at the channels offered and my bet is that baby boomers like me are going to more interested in this than millennials. I guess we’ll have to wait and see who subscribes to the skinny bundles.

State Commissions and Broadband

California PUCFrontier and the California commission have been negotiating a deal that lays out the terms that will allow Frontier to buy a pile of California customers from Verizon. Basically, as will be detailed below, the CPUC will require Frontier to upgrade broadband for over a third of the customers it has in the state as part of the deal.

Occasionally, state commissions get the chance to come down on the side of broadband, mostly during these times of mergers, sales, and acquisitions. There are a handful of state commissions, such as California, New York, Illinois and a few others, that have always been aggressive in these circumstances. There are a whole lot of other commissions who seem to be friendlier to the big carriers and let these kinds of deals slide through without much comment.

It’s good to see commissions take an aggressive stand to improve broadband. But looking back on some similar past deals one has to wonder how effective such arrangements really are. For example, I recall an arrangement between the Pennsylvania commission and Verizon in 1993 that freed Verizon from rate-of-return regulation as long as Verizon would bring DSL to hundreds of rural communities. But Verizon never built that DSL and rural Pennsylvania today still has some of the worst broadband in the country.

There also have been deals made by other government entities and carriers that have not brought any results. For instance, dozens of eastern cities gave Verizon franchise agreements to sell cable TV for an agreement that the company would bring FiOS fiber to their whole city. Verizon never built that extra fiber in any of these communities and earlier this year finally admitted that it was never going to expand FiOS fiber any further.

The FCC just made a deal with AT&T to greatly expand their fiber product as part of the agreement to buy DirecTV. We’ll have to wait and see if the company meets this obligation, and most of the industry is still trying to figure out if AT&T is serious about fiber.

So these deals sound great, but one has to wonder how much teeth they have. In this case, if Frontier doesn’t come through over time it’s not like the California commission can undo the purchase of the Verizon properties. There really is not a lot that any regulatory commission can do these days with a carrier that chooses not to comply with such an agreement. There was a time when commissions held a lot of power over carriers. They controlled rate increases and had many other levers to influence carrier behavior. But in a world where all three of the triple play products are largely deregulated there is only so much that any government agency can do to a rogue carrier.

Back to the details of the Frontier deal. The agreement, which is still to be signed by the California commission, would have Frontier do the following:

  • Provide 25 Mbps downstream and 2-3 Mbps upstream to an additional 400,000 households in California by December 31, 2022.
  • Provide 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream to an additional 100,000 unserved households beyond its CAF II commitments by December 31, 2020
  • Deploy 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream to 77,402 households in accordance with the CAF II requirements in the census blocks identified by the FCC
  • Deploy 6 Mbps downstream and 1 to 1.5 Mbps upstream to an additional 250,000 households in California

Altogether this would bring better broadband to over 800,000 California homes. But I feel sorry for the homes that are being upgraded to 6 Mbps. This will likely be their last upgrade before their copper gets torn down in the not-too-distant future.

Telling Customers the Truth

FCC_New_LogoThe FCC got a recommendation from its Staff to finally implement one of the aspects of net neutrality that large ISPs are bound to hate. They are recommending that ISPs publish consumer disclosure forms that declare all of the relevant facts about their broadband products.

This is not a new requirement and was originally ordered in the first FCC net neutrality decision several years ago. Since it was never challenged in court, this portion of the original order always remained in effect. But the FCC never got around to telling carriers specifically what they must disclose to customers.

The list of what Staff is recommending to be disclosed is really thorough and includes all of the information that customers ought to know about their broadband product. This includes:

  • What the product would cost if bought as a standalone product, not part of a bundle.
  • Details of how those prices change if the product is in a bundle.
  • Details of the charges. For instance, if there is a data cap, then what is the base fee and how much is additional data?
  • Any associated charges for a modem, WiFi router, or other equipment.
  • Details of other monthly fees. This is a great requirement because large carriers have been inventing various fees to make their base prices look lower, and a customer has no way of knowing in most cases if these fees represent taxes the carriers must pay or are just pocketed by the carrier.
  • A list of the taxes that apply to the service.
  • Average data speeds. The FCC wants carriers to report the average peak download and upload speeds that come from FCC testing or carrier tests. This will be a real challenge for some carriers since broadband speeds can vary widely within their network. For instance, DSL speeds vary by the distance from the central office. Cable modem speeds can vary a lot between different network nodes. And some technologies varies by the number of users on the system.
  • Average latency. This is the network delay in getting data from the web.
  • Average packet loss. How much of the data you are downloading comes through accurately. This and latency are two things that carriers rarely disclose.
  • A list of network management practices that might affect service. The FCC wants details about how such practices are triggered and applied to the network.
  • The company’s privacy policy.
  • How to make complaints.

For now these rules are only going to apply to carriers with more than 100,000 customers. The FCC is going to consider, however, how this might apply to smaller carriers at some later date. One has to imagine that at least some of this is going to be required for everybody.

That is an incredibly detailed list of requirements and covers every aspect of selling a data product. Carriers that deliver honest speeds are going to have no problems with these requirements. In fact, if you deliver a fast data product that actually delivers what you advertise, then these disclosure forms could become a competitive edge since you will be able to point to the competitor’s forms that tell a different story.

One thing that this ought to stop is carriers selling ‘up-to’ speeds since they are now going to have to disclose the actual speeds they deliver. It’s very common to see the large companies selling the same speeds in every market although the speeds they advertise are only available in urban parts of the states. This results in people thinking they are buying one speed but getting something far slower.

I’ve always wondered why the FCC took so long to do this. This requirement has been on the books now for many years and basically all that was needed was for the FCC to tell the carriers to implement what had been ordered. But it’s finally here and I am looking forward to seeing how the big companies comply with this. This level of required detail doesn’t give carriers a lot of wiggle room and perhaps customers are finally going to have a way to compare competing data products.

What Are Smart Cities?

Jetsons cityI’ve been seeing smart cities mentioned a lot over the last few years and so I spent some time lately reading about them to see what all the fuss is about. I found some of what I expected, but I also found a few surprises.

What I expected to find is that the smart city concept means applying computer systems to automate and improve some of the major systems that operate a city. And that is what I found. The first smart city concept was one of using computers to improve traffic flow, and that is something that is getting better all the time. With sensors in the roads and computerized lights, traffic systems are able to react to the actual traffic and work to clear traffic jams. And I read that this is going to work a lot better in the near future.

But smart city means a lot more. It means constructing interconnected webs of smart buildings that use green technology to save energy or to even generate some of the energy they need. It means surveillance systems to help deter and solve crimes. It means making government more responsive to citizen needs in areas like recycling, trash removal, snow removal, and general interfaces with city systems for permits, taxes, and other needs. And it’s going to soon mean integrating the Internet of Things into a city to perfect the many goals of governments doing a better job.

I also found that this is a worldwide phenomenon and there is some global competition between the US, Europe, China, and India to produce the most efficient smart cities. The conventional wisdom is that smart cities will become the foci of global trade and that smart cities will be the big winners in the battle for global economic dominance.

But I also found a few things I didn’t know. It turns out that the whole smart city concept was dreamed up by companies like IBM, Cisco, and Software AG. The whole phenomenon was not so much a case of cities clamoring for solutions, but rather of these large companies selling a vision of where cities ought to be going. And the cynic in me sees red flags and wonders how much of this phenomenon is an attempt to sell large, overpriced hardware and software systems to cities. After all, governments have always been some of the best clients for large corporations because they will often overpay and have fewer performance demands than commercial customers.

I agree that many of the goals for smart cities sound like great ideas. Anybody who has ever sat at a red light for a long time while no traffic was moving on the cross street has wished that a smart computer could change the light as needed. The savings for a community for more efficient traffic is immense in terms of saved time, more efficient businesses, and less pollution. And most cities could certainly be more efficient when dealing with citizens. It would be nice to be able to put a large piece of trash on the curb and have it whisked away quickly, or to be able to process a needed permit or license online without having to stand in line at a government office.

But at some point a lot of what the smart city vendors are pushing starts to sound like a big brother solution. For example, they are pushing surveillance cameras everywhere tied into software systems smart enough to make sense out of the mountains of captured images. But I suspect that most people who live in a city don’t want their city government spying and remembering everything they do in public any more than we want the NSA to spy on our Internet usage at the federal level.

So perhaps cities can be made too smart. I can’t imagine anybody who minds if cities get more efficient at the things they are supposed to provide for citizens. People want their local government to fix the potholes, deliver drinkable water, provide practical mass transit, keep the traffic moving, and make them feel safe when they walk down the street. When cities go too much past those basic needs they either have crossed the line into being too intrusive in our lives, or they are stepping over the line and competing with things that commercial companies ought to be doing. So I guess we want our cities to be smart, but not too smart.

Rise of the Robots

Rise of the RobotsI recently finished reading Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford. In the book he paints a rather bleak look at the not-too-distant future where robots begin taking over a lot of the jobs that support us. He predicts that within a few decades over 50% of the jobs that are here today will be gone through being done better and cheaper by automation.

Unlike past predictions, he’s not just talking about factory jobs, although those are well on the way to being replaced, too. I read that Apple is working hard to automate as much of the production of the iPhone as possible. But Ford says that the first jobs to disappear will be white collar jobs and that jobs that require physical skills and people-to-people interactions like plumbers, electricians, and auto repair might be the most immune from automation.

It’s a bit glib to use the word robots, because white collar jobs are going to be taken over by the combination of supercomputers and big data processing. And it’s also a bit of a misnomer to say that jobs will be replaced. Some jobs will be 100% supplanted, but for many jobs computers will be able to take over some significant portion of the work currently done. And in doing so companies will need fewer people.

The way to understand how this might happen is to consider the recent announcement that a deep learning computer learned to play master-level chess in 72 hours. There have been computers beating the best chess players in the world for a few decades now, but this is very different. The old computers were good at chess by using brute force and the computer programs looked ahead at millions of possible outcomes before making a move. But the new deep-learning computer learned to play chess the same way that humans do.

And if the computer can learn to play chess it can learn how to do a whole lot of jobs that people do. I have a friend, Danny, who operates a large CPA firm and he has already started his business down this path. He has written programs that have fully automated the process of reconciling bank statements and using that data to produce a set of books and a draft tax return, all with almost no human intervention. This has allowed him to save on labor and probably puts him five years ahead of his competition. But the industry will catch up to him and that is going to eliminate the bookkeepers and accounting clerks who have been doing that function everywhere.

It’s not hard to picture this same computer process eliminating the jobs of almost anybody that manipulates data. If you work in front of a computer screen you probably can and will be replaced. Some of the major news outlets already are using computers to generate sports stories for box scores. These programs can take a box score and turn it into a short word blurb that is hard to distinguish from one written by a human. But the new deep-learning approach is going to go far beyond this very simple task. I just read about an AI program that is helping scientists by searching through millions of published papers to find research related to what they are working on.

Ford is an industry insider and it’s hard to find fault with his conclusions. There are many others making the same prediction, but Ford makes the case more clearly than most others I’ve read. Where I disagree with Ford is in his suggestion of a solution. It’s obvious that if half of the people don’t have work that we will have to find a social solution. He suggest what he calls a Minimum Annual Income given by the government to those who can’t find work. It’s hard to picture with today’s politics that the county is going to step up and pay people to live who don’t work and will probably never work. If not, we face a very bleak future of haves and have-nots.

What I find most dismaying is that as a society we are paying zero attention to this issue while it is right in front of us. We are going to start seeing the jobs disappearing in the coming decade, with the decade following seeing the full brunt of technology replacing people. Take the example of pharmacists, which is typical of the kind of knowledge job that can easily be automated. It’s fairly unlikely that somebody just starting pharmacy school today is going to find lifetime employment in that field. There are already hospitals trialing robot pharmacists and reporting that they operate flawlessly without errors. While all pharmacists won’t go, one would think that the big drugstore chains will replace most pharmacists over the next decade or so. This is just one example and the same thing is going to happen to another thousand job descriptions. As good jobs start disappearing this is going to create possibly the biggest shift that society has ever faced over such a short period.

I don’t get paid anything to write this blog so I don’t worry about becoming unemployed as a writer. But the predictions are that a lot of technical writing will be done by computer soon. I don’t know if a computer is ever going to be as opinionated as me, but that is probably something that can be built in as well. So perhaps one day a computer will take over this blog. I’ll be sure to check in from time to time, though, just to see how I’m doing.