Using Gigabit Broadband

Mozilla recently awarded $280,000 in grants from its Gigabit Communities Fund to projects that are finding beneficial uses of gigabit broadband. This is the latest set of grants and the company has awarded more than $1.2 million to over 90 projects in the last six years. For any of you not aware of Mozilla, they offer a range of open standard software that promotes privacy. I’ve been using their Firefox web browser and operating software for years. As an avid reader of web articles I daily use their Pocket app for tracking the things I’ve read online.

The grants this year went to projects in five cities: Lafayette, LA; Eugene, OR; Chattanooga, TN; Austin, TX; and Kansas City. Grants ranged from $10,000 to $30,000. At least four of those cities are familiar names. Lafayette and Chattanooga are two of the largest municipally-owned fiber networks. Austin and Kansas City have fiber provided by Google Fiber. Eugene is a newer name among fiber communities and is in the process of constructing an open access wholesale network, starting in the downtown area.

I’m not going to recite the list of projects and a synopsis of them is on the Mozilla blog. The awards this year have a common theme of promoting the use of broadband for education. The awards were given mostly to school districts and non-profits, although for-profit companies are also eligible for the grants.

The other thing these projects have in common is that they are developing real-world applications that require robust broadband. For example, several of the projects involve using virtual reality. There is a project that brings virtual reality to several museums and another that shows how soil erosion from rising waters and sediment mismanagement has driven the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw band of Indians from the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana.

I clearly remember getting my first DSL connection at my house after spending a decade on dial-up. I got a self-installed DSL kit from Verizon and it was an amazing feeling when I connected it. That DSL connection provided roughly 1 Mbps, which was 20 to 30 times faster than dial-up. That speed increase freed me up to finally use the Internet to read articles, view pictures and shop without waiting forever for each web site to load. I no longer had to download software updates at bedtime and hope that the dial-up connection didn’t crap out.

I remember when Google Fiber first announced they were going to build gigabit networks for households. Gigabit broadband brings that same experience. When Google Fiber announced the gigabit fiber product most cable networks had maximum speeds of perhaps 30 Mbps – and Google was bringing more than a 30-times increase in speed.

Almost immediately we heard from the big ISPs who denigrated the idea saying that nobody needs gigabit bandwidth and that this was a gimmick. Remember that at that time the CEO of almost every major ISP was on the record saying that they provided more than enough broadband to households – when it was clear to users that they didn’t.

Interestingly, since the Google Fiber announcement the big cable companies have decided to upgrade their own networks to gigabit speeds and ISPs like AT&T and Verizon rarely talk about broadband without mentioning gigabit. Google Fiber reset the conversation about broadband and the rest of the industry has been forced to pay heed.

The projects being funded by Mozilla are just a few of the many ways that we are finding applications that need bigger broadband. I travel to communities all over the country and in the last year I have noticed a big shift in the way that people talk about their home broadband. In the past people would always comment that they seemed to have (or not have) enough broadband speed to stream video. But now, most conversations about broadband hit on the topic of using multiple broadband applications at the same time. That’s because this is the new norm. People want broadband connections that can connect to multiple video streams simultaneously while also supporting VoIP, online schoolwork, gaming and other bandwidth-hungry applications. I now routinely hear people talking about how their 25 Mbps connection is no longer adequate to support their household – a conversation I rarely heard as recently as a few years ago.

We are not going to all grow into needing gigabit speeds for a while. But the same was true of my first DSL connection. I had that connection for over a decade, and during that time my DSL got upgraded once to 6 Mbps. But even that eventually felt slow and a few years later I was the first one in my area using the new Verizon FiOS and a 100 Mbps connection on fiber. ISPs are finally facing up to the fact that households are expecting a lot of broadband speed. The responsive ISPs are responding to this demand, while some bury their heads in the sand and try to convince people that their slower broadband speeds are still all that people need.

Privacy Bill of Rights

SpyVsSpyLike most people I am uncomfortable by the online invasions of my privacy. It seems like every day there are articles telling me how the NSA or some large corporation is monitoring me and profiling me. It seems like we only have two options these days – become a Luddite and stay off the Internet, or take part in the modern world and have companies gather information about us.

The whole world is wrestling with this issue and Europe is ahead of us in trying to place some constraints on the data gathering. The European Union is putting a lot of pressure on the US government to create standards of personal privacy.

A few years ago the White House endorsed a list of rights that are known as the Consumer Privacy Bill or Rights. At the time this came out companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL agreed to support the ideas. These rights include:

  • Individual Control: The right of individuals to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it;
  • Transparency: The right to expect easily understandable information about privacy and security practices;
  • Focused Collection: The right to place reasonable limits on the personal data that organizations collect and retain;
  • Accountability: The right to have personal data handled by organizations with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Bill of Rights.

But these principles have never been codified into law and so we still have no U.S. Privacy Bill or Rights. John Kerry and John McCain tried to get this passed into law in 2011, and Jay Rockefeller proposed similar legislation in 2013.

The industry has created a mechanism which could be used to implement a “Do Not Track’ process. A standard was developed that would put ‘DNT’ into the HTTP header field to notify that a user had opted out of being tracked. And some browsers like Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera all support this protocol and have implemented the Do Not Track header.

People want to opt out. About 14% of Foxfire users have enabled the Do Not Track feature. However, without a law to mandate its use, there is no compulsion for businesses to recognize and honor the request to opt out, so for now opting out is an empty gesture and nobody is honoring it. I’ve had offers from software companies trying to sell me software t,hat will stop me from being tracked. They know that the vast majority of Americans want that ability. But such software is vaporware until Google and the other companies that track information about us will honor a Do Not Track process.

I don’t know if I’m more uncomfortable with big business or the government tracking me. Like most Americans I have done nothing that should make me nervous about having the government look over my shoulder. But I also fully understand that knowledge is power and it would be too easy for somebody unscrupulous in the government to misuse that data. Go back and re-read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ if you want a reminder of what can happen with government gone awry. Look today how China and other countries monitor and control what can be seen on the Internet. Even Britain, who we think is like us is trying to stop people from seeing pornography.

Recent revelations about the way that the NSA spies on us revealed that the government has been tracking us using the same cookies and other tools that big business is using. So when a company puts a cookie on your machine it is enabling you being tracked by everybody who knows how to read that cookie.

I am cynical and my gut tells me that even should this law pass that the big companies and the government are going to keep tracking us anyway. It’s just too tempting to do so, and they both believe the benefit outweighs the risk of being caught. It would certainly be disingenuous for the government to ever prosecute a business for engaging in spying on us if the government is doing the same thing.