WiFi Kiosks

One of the first thing a visitor to New York City will notice these days is the proliferation around the city of LinkNYC kiosks. There are now about 1,300 of the 9.5 foot tall kiosks scattered around the city with hopes eventually have 7,500 of them. The kiosks are being installed in sites that used to have public payphones.

The kiosks offer a range of connectivity and other services. Each kiosk offers a free blazing fast gigabit WiFi hot spot. Each terminal has a phone that can be used to make free calls to anywhere in the US and allows for calling cards to be used for international calling. There is a button for an instant connection to 911. Each device has a tablet that can be used to access city maps, directions and other services. The kiosks off a fast charger for cellphones and other devices.

Probably most striking about LinkNYC are the two large 55-inch high definition displays on each side. The screens are used to display local ads and public service announcements. The business model for the kiosks relies solely upon advertising revenues from these screens.

The launch of the kiosks was not without some issues. Early kiosks allowed for web browsing on the tablets and there were reports of crowds using the kiosks to view pornography. There are concerns from privacy groups that the network can be used to track the 2.7 million people who have signed up to use the kiosks. The system is essentially a big ISP in terms of being able to match web browsing habits with users who log onto the network.

The kiosks have the potential for more uses in the future. Since they have fast connectivity they are natural places to collocate 5G small cell sites. There was talk when the project started of using the kiosks as platforms for municipal security cameras, although it doesn’t seem like there is much public support for that concept.

One interesting aspect of LinkNYC is the ability to tackle at least some portion of the digital divide in the city. The homeless, or those who can’t afford home broadband can gain access to the web through the WiFi connections at the links. Anybody with a WiFi-enabled phone can be connected to the web or make and receive phone calls without having to subscribe to a cellular plan. The kiosks are bringing some level of Internet access to those who otherwise might never have it.

There are obvious drawbacks to using the kiosks to solve the digital divide. The devices are outdoors and only the hearty are going to use them for very long during the winter. While the WiFi is fast, this isn’t going to make it easier for kids to do schoolwork or for people to take online training or do anything else that takes much time.

I’ve also been wondering how viable these kiosks might be in other cities? New York City is unique in that it’s both the largest US city and also one where people walk everywhere. That means a lot of potential viewers to support an advertising-funded model. Something similar is being built in London. How many other places in the US have the demographics to support this same funding model? Places like San Francisco, parts of Chicago and other major cities come to mind – but none of them have the same potential as New York City. There are other places that have a lot of people, like college campuses, but students are already connected to the web.

The idea is probably not going to be financially viable in more places until some other way to help fund them is found. There are cities that are probably willing to pay to support part of the cost of these systems – many cities have been searching for ways to expand public WiFi access. Getting the wireless companies to install 5G cell sites could be another difference maker. I’m sure that if these platforms become more widely available that other entrepreneurs will find ways to monetize them.

You have to give kudos to New York City for tackling this. Having kiosks spread all over the city is bringing benefits to citizens and providing access to those who would otherwise not have it. I wonder, though, if the city would be willing to step in to keep these operating if this trial is not financially sustainable? Cities have found many times that it’s not easy to kill a service that is widely popular.

Make it Faster

Cable modem Motorola SurfBoard for broadband i...

Cable modem Motorola SurfBoard for broadband internet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I look at my client’s data products I almost have the same advice – make it faster. I am constantly surprised to find companies who deliver small bandwidth data products when their networks are capable of going much faster. I have come to the conclusion that you should give customers as much bandwidth as you technically can deliver, within any technical restraints.

I know that networks are operated largely by engineers and technicians and very often I hear the engineers warn management against increasing speeds. They typically are worried that faster speeds mean that customers will use more bandwidth. They worry that will mean more costs with no additional revenue to pay for the extra bandwidth.

But the experience in the industry is that customers don’t use more data when they get more speeds, at least not right away. Customers do not change their behavior after they get faster data – they just keep doing the same things they were doing before, only faster.

Of course, over time, internet data usage is steadily increasing on every network as customers watch more and more programming on the web. But they are going to increase usage regardless of the speed you deliver to them as long as that speed is fast enough to stream video. Going faster just means they can start watching content sooner without having to worry about streaming glitches.

The engineers do have one valid point that must be taken into consideration, in that many networks have chokepoints. A chokepoint is any place in a network that can restrict the flow of data to customers. Chokepoints can be at neighborhood nodes, within your network backbone, at devices like routers, or on the Internet backbone leaving your company. If your network is getting close to hitting a chokepoint you need to fix the issue because the data usage is going to grow independently of the speeds you give your customers. When I hear worry about chokepoints it tells me that the network needs upgrades, probably sooner rather than later.

Historically telecom companies were very stingy with data speeds. The first generations of DSL didn’t deliver speeds that were much faster than dial-up and even today there are many markets that still offer DSL with downloads speeds of 1 Mbps. Then cable modems came along and they upped speeds a little, with the first generation of cable modems offering speeds up to 3 Mbps. And over time the telcos and the cable companies increased data speeds a little, but not a lot. They engaged in oligopoly competition rather than in product competition. There are many notorious quotes by the presidents of large cable companies saying that their customers don’t need more speed.

But then Verizon built FiOS and changed the equation. Verizon’s lowest speed product when they launched service was 20 Mbps, and it was an honest speed, meaning that it delivered as advertised. Many of the DSL and cable modem speeds at that time were hyped at speeds faster than could be delivered in the network. Cable modems were particular susceptible to slowing down to a crawl at the busiest times of the evening.

Over time Verizon kept increasing their speeds and on the east coast they pushed the cable companies to do the same. Mediacom in New York City was the first cable company to announce a 50 Mbps data product, and today most urban cable companies offer a 100 Mbps product. However, the dirty secret cable companies don’t want to tell you is that they can offer that product by giving prioritization to those customers, which means that everybody else gets degraded a little bit.

And then came Google in Kansas City who set the new bar to 1 Gbps. Service providers all over the country are now finding ways to 1 Gbps service, even if it’s just to a few customers.

I am always surprised when I find a company who operates a fiber network which does not offer fast speeds. I still find fiber networks all the time that have products at 5 Mbps and 10 Mbps. In all of the fiber-to-the-premise technologies, the network is set up to deliver at least 100 Mbps to every customer and the network provider chokes the speeds down to what is sold to customers. It literally takes a flick of a switch for a fiber provider to change the speed to a home or business from 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps.

And so I tell these operators to make it faster. If you own a fiber network you have one major technological advantage over any competition, which is speed. I just can’t understand why a fiber network owner would offer speeds that are in direct competition with the DSL and cable modems in their market when they are capable of leaping far above them.

But even if you are using copper or coax you need to increase speeds to customers whenever you can. Customers want more speed and you will always be keeping the pressure on your competition.

What is Behind the Aereo Controversy?

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

The Aereo ruling on April 1 certainly has the cable industry in an uproar. In that ruling a federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that Aereo’s wireless streams to customers are not a ‘public performance’ and thus do not constitute copyright infringement. On Friday Glenn Britt, the CEO of Time Warner, said that his company was considering pulling the broadcast networks off of his cable TV systems and sending them to customers over a radio in the same way that is being done by Aereo. And recently, in response to the Aereo ruling the broadcast networks threatened to pull all of their content off the air and move their programming to cable TV. So what is up with Aereo, and can these companies do what they have threatened?

Aereo has an interesting product that seems to have found a market niche, at least in New York City where it is now operating. Aereo sets up a radio link to each customer and sends them a 28 channel packagethat includes the major networks, some other low-cost networks and some spanish and asian-language channels. Aereo can be installed on any Windows or Mac computer and can then be streamed to iOS devices like the iPhone, iPad or Apple TV. It can also be made to work with a Roku box. And one would imagine it will soon be made to work with other pads and tablets. The service also lets a consumer record some programming for later playback. The pricing is cheap compared to cable TV with a $1 per day plan, monthly or annual plans, including a monthly plan for $8 that lets a customer watch everything live plus record and play back 20 hours of programming per month.

Why does this controversy even exist? Can’t people just receive the broadcast networks over the air? On June 12, 2009 all full-power analog television transmissions ended and starting with that date the full-power television stations, which include all of the major networks like ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox could only broadcast in digital. Customer now need a Digital Television Adapter (DTA) to receive the signals and any home that is near to a station can receive it for free. But it is not easy for the average consumer to get these signals from the TV to mobile devices, and Aereo’s real marketing niche is providing signals to computers, iPhones and iPads.

Why are Time Warner and the cable companies so stirred up over Aereo? Aereo seems to have found the niche of people who want to watch mainstream programming without being tethered to their TV. If Aereo was limited to New York City this probably wouldn’t be a huge deal, but they have announced that the service is coming to 22 other major markets in 2013.

As is the case with all big business controversies it all comes down to money. In the 1992 Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act, Congress required that all cable operators obtain the permission from broadcasters before carrying their signals on their cable systems. For a while this permission was granted for free, but in recent years the broadcasters have asked for significant fees and it is not unusual to see each local broadcast network charging $1 or more per customer per month for retransmission consent. So a cable system now has to pay that much each for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, and in some markets multiple stations of some of these. This has driven large increases in cable rates and is now a point of huge contention between broadcasters and the cable companies.

The broadcasters are angry that Aereo is able to bypass their fees since retransmission fees currently make up as much as 10% of their revenue. And the cable companies are angry that Aereo has gotten out of paying the same fees that they must pay. And they are worried that Aereo will accelerate the trend of customers who are ditching traditional cable TV in favor of programming from the web and elsewhere, the trend referred to as the cord-cutters.

Can Time Warner really do the same thing that Aereo is doing? Certainly Time Warner or anybody could form a company that does the same thing as Aereo and compete with them. Such a company could sell the same sort of line-up and do it using radios like Aereo has done. But they first must recognize that it’s important that Aereo is using radios because this is what allows them to not be a cable TV company, which is defined as somebody who delivers cable content using cables. So Time Warner would have to use radios also. And Time Warner is still hoping that the Supreme Court will look at the issue so it’s not entirely certain that Aereo, or anybody, has the legal last word that this is okay.

So Time Warner could establish an Aereo-clone company and do exactly what Aereo is doing. But they could not do this as an alternative to putting the network channels onto their cable system. In the aforementioned 1992 Cable Act, Congress set forth the rules for cable systems to carry broadcast channels, referred to as the must-carry rules. Congress said that a cable system with 12 or fewer channels must carry at least three local broadcast channels. Larger cable systems must carry all local broadcast channels, up to a maximum of 1/3 of their system. This means that Time Warner could not pull the local broadcast networks off of their cable and deliver it in a different way. But Time Warner could probably sell an Aereo-like product to somebody if that is the only product they sell to that customer.

Finally, can the broadcast networks pull their signals off the air and move them to be cable only? I can’t think of any reason why not. At that point they would no longer be a broadcaster and they would avoid all of the FCC rules applicable to over-the-air broadcasters. But if they do this they would become like any other cable network, and so ABC would be treated the same as HBO or TBS or any other cable network. It is likely that such a change would infuriate Congress since around 15% of the people in cities still receive free TV over the air. There would certainly be political repercussions from a broadcast network deciding to become just another cable network. For instance, might they lose their ability to carry professional football?

At the bottom of this controversy are huge dollars and also the underlying fear of the cable industry that Aereo is one more factor that is accelerating the bypass of their systems. It seems like Aereo might be in a similar position to MCI back when they broke the long distance monopoly. Aereo has stuck a sharp stick in the eyes of both the cable companies and the broadcasters and there is one hell of an interesting fight yet to come.