What Is That Gizmo? Is it TV? It's Everywhere.

It’s not unusual to run into someone you know on an airplane. This week when someone I saw at the ACA Summit said they saw me on a Southwest flight a couple of weeks ago, I had to wonder as it had been since January since I had flown Viodi’s corporate jet (aka, SWA). Turns out, he had seen a video segment I had provided to Gizomedia for inclusion on their gizmo video channel, which has appeared in some hotel chains and, now, much to my surprise, on Southwest Airlines.

The show features two enthusiastic, energetic and knowledgable hosts who have an appeal that spans generations. They make insightful comments about the content, which is a mix of editorial and advertorial, and, as the name implies, focuses on gizmos.

Gizmo has a prime position in the Southwest Airlines linear channel offering, which is limited to fewer than 20 channels, is free to the user and features major cable networks, such as HGTV, Cartoon Network and Fox News. Oddly enough, the video player didn’t work on my android devices, but it worked fine in Chrome on a lap-top.

Gizmo sees their programming extending through multiple channels, including physical kiosks, as well  as the aforementioned private networks. One of my broadband operator friends who saw the channel mentioned that this is the type of programming he is looking for to reach younger generations and cord-cutters. So stay tuned for updates on this network that is just taking off.

 

Google’s Actions Hurt Broadband Rollout, Particularly in Rural America

Lack of relevant content, affordability and digital literacy are the three dominant barriers to the adoption of broadband, according to the World Bank Broadband Strategies Toolkit. The Google Apps Partner Edition™ platform addresses these barriers as it is a relatively low-cost, email/communications/productivity/device management platform. The Google platform has become a platform trusted by tens of millions to manage the cyber aspects of their businesses and their lives, including this publication which has used variations of it since late 2006.

A recent decision by Google that unilaterally changes the way it deals with ISP partnerships jeopardizes that trust, while putting up new barriers to broadband and have some suggesting that Google’s actions are at the heart of the issues that have been brought forward in the Senate Judiciary Committee Net Neutrality hearings. Assuming the ISPs can continue with some variation of the existing program, the approximate ten times cost increase cost makes cable programming price hikes trivial by comparison.

A Brilliant Partnership Strategy

An ISP brochure featuring the benefits of Google Apps.
An ISP brochure featuring the benefits of Google Apps Partner Edition.

To help drive adoption of its platform, Google engaged ISPs and Communications Service Providers, many of which are non-profit, member-owned entities, to be value-added resellers of their Google Apps platform. These operators transitioned their customers from self-hosted or third-party email solutions to the Google Apps platform.

This approach of working with local partners allowed Google to focus on creating and keeping the platform relevant, as indicated in this post from this 2007 Google Blog post by Google product manager, Hunter Middleton:

“From the beginning, we envisioned making Google Apps available to any organization that might want to offer this innovative set of services to its employees, customers, students, members, or any other associates of the organization. Today, we’re excited to take another step in that direction by releasing a version of Google Apps specifically designed for ISPs, portals, and other service providers, whether you have a few thousand subscribers or over a million. This new version, which we’re calling the Partner Edition, makes it easy for large and small service providers to offer your subscribers the latest versions of powerful tools, like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs & Spreadsheets, without having to worry about hosting, updating, or maintaining any of the services yourself. All you have to do is point and click in the easy admin control panel and figure out what branding you’d like to layer on top of the products in order to create a customized look and feel. You can quit spending your resources and time on applications like webmail — and leave the work to our busy bees at the Googleplex.”

And the strategy worked, as hundreds of ISPs, representing what some estimate to be approximately one million subscribers signed up. By being able to private label the service, the ISPs could offer their customers state-of-the-art, ad-free email, contacts, chat, calendars, online documents, photos and more at an affordable price without having to maintain a costly infrastructure. BEVCOMM”s CEO Bill Eckles stated how it made a difference to his company and  community:

 “BEVCOMM has been using their [Google’s] platform through a 3rd party integrator for a couple of years.  We switched from managing our email platform in-house to Google’s platform because of their reputation for being incredibly reliable.  As a very small company we simply didn’t have the resources to manage a platform ourselves with the reliability people demand from email.”

With Google focusing on software, the ISP’s could focus on educating customers on how to use the many features inherent in the Google Apps products. These customers included not only residential, but schools and small businesses who appreciated the assistance that only an operator with local presence can provide. These ISPs essentially serve as the local, outsourced IT staff, freeing up resources of the small businesses to focus on their services and products.

In an email exchange, Kurt Gruendling, VP of Marketing for WCVT, a family owned, Vermont rural communications company explained how he and his colleague taught classes to more than 1,000 customers:

“I’m a big advocate for the platform and I think the Google Apps platform is very powerful and have spent a considerable amount of time teaching “Google School” classes to our customers many of whom would have never used Google Apps.  We have taught over 50 on site classes and webinars throughout our territory over the past 18 months with more than 1,000 customers attending and leading them to the value of the core services in the platform that go way beyond mail.”

Kurt Gruendling teaching how to use Google Apps to rural customers
Kurt Gruendling teaching rural customers how to use Google Apps.

In addition to its investment in marketing and training, the ISP pays Google for the ongoing cost to maintain the service. The costs are variable, which is a benefit to the ISP, as they don’t have to make large upfront investments in servers and software. This allows the ISP to focus on providing higher-speed and more reliable bandwidth to their customers by bringing fiber deeper into the last-mile network, which is important for the cloud-based, Google Apps platform. Ironically, many of these rural operators deployed Fiber to the Home (FTTH) bef ore Google’s move into that business in certain urban markets, such as Kansas City, Austin and Provo.

For those operators that were too small to deal directly with Google, at least two Google Apps Partner Edition™ integrators emerged to help; Ikano and NeoNova, a subsidiary of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative. These aggregators not only helped the operators, but they helped get the word out about the Google Apps Partner Edition™ and aggressively marketed it and successfully signed up ISPs throughout the country, such  as the aforementioned WCVT

10X Increase in Cost – If You Can Get It

Things were going swimmingly for the operators and their customers, then, in early 2014, operators found out that Google has plans to significantly alter its relationship with ISPs in 2015. This was a surprise and is causing operators to scramble to come up with alternative solutions. The solutions aren’t going to be simple or inexpensive, however.

One person commenting with a Google Forum suggested that he sees the following alternatives as summarized below:

  1. Audit our email accounts to reduce the number as much as possible. Migrate the accounts to Google Apps for Business, which would be about 10 times the cost [from $0.35 to approx. $3-$4 per month that this operator is currently paying Google] per email account. Pass this cost on to consumers and prepare for a backlash.
  2. Migrate to another solution

Based on comments from operators both in private exchanges with this author and on the aforementioned Google Forum, it is unclear whether Google Apps for Business will even be available to all ISPs.

The increased cost cited above actually is much higher on a per household basis, as the costs are on a per email account basis, so the cost to the ISP for a typical residential broadband account with 5 included email accounts would jump to $16.50 per month.

The other alternative is to switch providers. There are rumblings that some providers are looking at alternatives, such as Atmail (which interestingly just opened a U.S. office), [added 10/16/14] Hyperoffice, Microsoft Office 365, [Added 10/17/14] OX, Zimbra or Zoho. Still, there are concerns about the migration and, as WCVT’s Gruendling points out, it isn’t clear whether all of a customers “paid for” content will successfully transition, as there isn’t a one-for-one replacement for Google’s excellent product.

“There is a date when Google will delete end-user data, including documents, pictures, videos and paid-for content.”

An ISP promoting Google Apps with a prominent place on their web site.
An ISP prominently promoting Google Apps on its web site.

In addition to the higher direct ongoing costs that, in the end, will be passed on to the consumer, there will also be the costs associated with making the transition. One forum commenter suggesting it could take 1 to 2 staff to focus on the transition. This is a real opportunity cost for operators with a small staffs and it means they have fewer resources for helping customers and building their broadband networks.

Bill Eckles, CEO of MN-based, rural telecommunications provider, BEVCOMM, suggested that experience suggests the transition will be challenging:

“Now that Google has decided they don’t want to maintain this program we are going to be forced to move all of our customers. The markets BEVCOMM serves are generally more rural and less affluent than [those served by] larger companies.  Every time we switch email platforms it is a major undertaking trying to support our customers through the move.  The last time we switched platforms 3,000 email customers opted to switch to another option not offered by BEVCOMM.”

It will be a hassle for the consumers, as it will mean reconfiguration of mail clients on PCs, phones and tablets. Special care will be necessary for the ISP’s business customers who are dealing with confidential information and regulatory compliance issues (e.g. HIPAA).

And since this transition includes documents, photos and paid-for content, it will be even more complex than the transition that the ISPs made to move their existing email systems to Google’s platforms. And many of these providers are still recovering from that move, which, for some, occurred less than a year ago.

Google – Rural America Is Calling

In a letter to Senator Leahy, WCVT characterized this as an issue of rural/urban and big/small and that the conversation will cause a multi-million dollar support issue that will affect the operators, as well as Google.

Bill Eckles of Bevcomm reinforced WCVT’s comments when he stated in an email:

“Switching email platforms is a major disruption for our customers, who really at the end of the day are Google’s customers. As far as I know Google didn’t even bother asking for input from any of the companies who are offering their email.  This experience has really shown Google doesn’t seem to care about rural consumers.”

A WCVT service vehicle in rural Vermont about to cover a historic covered bridge.
A WCVT service vehicle in rural Vermont about to cover a historic covered bridge.

One of the big frustrations for the ISPs is that they haven’t been given a reason the program, which these  ISPs want to keep, is being unilaterally changed by Google. They have made suggestions for compromise solutions, but have been unable to discuss with any of the Google staff responsible for the offering.

This action also seemingly runs counter to Google’s initiatives to make broadband ubiquitous, as its ISP partners are deploying Fiber to the Home in rural markets where Google will not be able to reach with its last-mile, fiber network.

WCVT, in its letter to Senator Leahy, provides a voice to its rural ISP brethren with its desire to meet with Google.

“We are requesting a meeting with Google decision-makers with authority and vision to establish a reasonable course of action. We need the chance, on behalf of our consumers, to sit down and discuss the impacts of this decision and to seek to work with Google to find alternative solutions rather than just having the plug pulled on us.”

These providers want to work with Google and one service provider holds out hope that those who came to rely on Google to provide critical content for their broadband networks will be able to come up with a solution that works for all parties:

“There has to be a better solution. We are committed to working with Google and hope that they don’t turn their back on rural America.”

[Editor’s Note: At the time of publication, Google has not yet provided an official response to this article, explaining why they changed the Google Apps Partner Edition™ program.]

[Added 03/25/15 & 10/16/14] Links to exclusive ViodiTV interviews with operators discussing the impact of Google’s actions on their operations and their customers:

Catherine Moyer, GM of Pioneer Communications, discussing their use of Google Apps at the 2014 NTCA Fall Conference.
Donnie Miller explains how Pioneer Telephone was blindsided by Google.
Catherine Moyer, GM of Pioneer Communications, discussing their use of Google Apps at the 2014 NTCA Fall Conference.
Catherine Moyer, GM of Pioneer Communications, discusses the impact of Google’s actions.
Kurt Gruendling of WCVT displays the Smart Rural Community road sign symbolizing the award his company received from NTCA at their 2014 Fall Conference.
Kurt Gruendling, WCVT VP of Marketing and Business Development discusses impact of Google’s actions.

Cable Show 2014 Musings

The following are some observations from and reactions to the recent 2014 Cable Show.

A picture of the Comcast booth at the Cable Show 2014
Comcast Booth at the Cable Show 2014

Impressive Demos

Comcast had a series of impressive demonstrations at the cable show. One presentation dealt with Comcast’s new techniques for troubleshooting and predicting cable plant issues, which has improved efficiency for their customer service and given a better experience to their customers. What they are doing in this regard would definitely benefit other cable operators and would be an obvious efficiency they could bring to a Time-Warner merger.

Along those lines, Comcast showed the near-future with enhanced software apps for its X1 Operating System. One such app will allow customers to do things such as easily limit Internet viewing by parameters, such as time, family member and device within and outside the home (via Xfinity hotspots, for instance). Although similar to services already included in retail routers, Comcast has the advantage of being able present these options via an easy-to-use interface on the TV screen.

[dropshadowbox align=”center” effect=”lifted-both” width=”350px” height=”” background_color=”#ffffff” border_width=”1″ border_color=”#dddddd” ]

Open Up DNS, Comcast

One current sticky point that should be resolved (pun intended) is that Open DNS (a freemium service that allows a customer to filter sites going to their broadband router and home network) doesn’t currently work with the latest X1 Cable Modems from Comcast. This is a real disappointment, as this author found Comcast’s integrated wireless modem to provide better coverage than his existing wireless router.

Figuring out the issue and the solution wasn’t trivial and required significant time on the Internet and then a call to Comcast Customer Support to disable their wireless router. A software selection, allowing the customer to choose which DNS the broadband router points to, would be probably the best for customer and Comcast (reduced customer support).

Based on conversations with various Comcast staff, this issue is an oversight and doesn’t appear to be an intentional effort to thwart a potentially competitive feature from another service. To get in front of this issue, it would be wise for Comcast to provide an easy way for customers to choose their DNS service (web filtering experience). They should also figure out how to create such a setting without disrupting their plan to create a network of home WiFi hot spots.[/dropshadowbox]

Is it a Revolution or More of the Same

Sean Combs at the 2014 Cable Show
Sean Combs at the 2014 Cable Show

The comments from the richest hip-hop personality, at least for now, were sincere and it was clear that he knows he has to work to earn the distribution eyeballs of cable operators with his relatively new TV network, Revolt TV. Sean Combs sees an opportunity to remake the music video experience for a new generation. He said the reason he launched Revolt TV is that, “Music was homeless”. His intent is to build a worldwide brand. It is clear that Combs is a master of cross-channel promotions (brilliant move appearing in the Fiat commercial with his Revolt brand in the background – kind of ironic as well, since his former girlfriend also was a Fiat spokesperson).

Although it is more than a linear TV network, it seems like it will be a challenge to build a brand that reaches today’s teenagers who are growing up on YouTube and selfies (e.g. Instragram, Vince, Snapchat, etc.). In my informal poll of four teenage boys, only one had heard of Revolt TV (and he hadn’t seen it). In today’s day and age with media everywhere, it is a huge challenge to replicate the disruptive path of MTV and its, “I want my MTV campaign,” which was as much as driving new cable subscribers to the distributors as it was brand awareness for the channel. Still, Combs is a smart guy who is savvy enough to adjust to or create the market.

Freedom to be Creative

Matthew Wiener, the successful Executive Producer of AMC’s hit show, Mad Men, provided insight as to why we are in TV’s Golden Age, with respect to creativity. He echoed what we have heard about local content; that is, people are willing to work for less, if they can realize their creative vision. Cable networks allow this freedom and, as pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article, are changing the way broadcast TV develops and airs their content.

Tap a WiFi Hopspot

A multi-tap that also doubles as a WiFi Hot Spot.
A multitap that also doubles as a WiFi Hot Spot.

What a great and somewhat obvious idea; a multitap that features an integrated WiFi hot spot. An integrated DOCSIS modem creates a broadband back-haul link and DC power is supplied from the distribution cable. A representative from the South Korea-based Net Wave, Co. Ltd, suggested this patented device could be had for approximately $500 (although a web search suggests prices closer to $800).

Although the price of this is expensive compared to a traditional passive, multitap, it is a relatively inexpensive way to fill-in WiFi dead zones (e.g. for those areas where customers opt-out of the cable-supplied home WiFi hot spot, as noted above with the Open DNS issue). It could also provide opportunities for new business models. For example, it isn’t too hard to imagine this sort of thing being adopted by cable operators to offer a radically different service offering, such as a low-cost, drop-free, WiFi broadband-only service to low-income households.

4K, 4K, 4K

An example of an Ultra HD TV and associated STB on display at LG's booth at the 2014 Cable Show.
LG’s Ultra HD & STB Display

4K displays were in multiple booths. Surprisingly, I ran into at least one industry executive whose first 4K viewing experience of these lifelike displays was at this Cable Show. 4K is coming on fast as there were multiple booths displaying cable set-tops that will soon (year-end?) support 4K.

Evidence of the growth of UHD TV is found in a new report from research firm IHS Technology which estimates that worldwide, “UHD TV panel shipments amounted to 1.1 million units in March, nearly a threefold increase from 384,300 units a month earlier in February.”

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned for exclusive ViodiTV interviews from the show, including:

  • Interview with Viamedia on their approach to programmatic advertising buying
  • Home monitoring and security in a box
  • Demonstration of a WiFi transfer of data of nearly 2 Gb/s
  • An interesting app that points to the evolution of cable operators from broadband providers to a broadband ecosystem.

To see the ViodiTV summary video of the 2014 Cable Show, click here.

NAB 2014 Notes and Pictures

NAV would be a more appropriate acronym for the multi-day conference that NAB hosts in Las Vegas each spring. Video (and audio to a lesser extent) is the common denominator to the sessions and the vendors that populate the massive exhibit floor.  The “B” (broadcasters) in NAB was somewhat smaller in scope compared to the innovation surrounding the capture, post-production and digital distribution of video that years ago used to be sent exclusively over-the-air.

An article about NAB 2014 needs at least one mention of 4K or Ultra HD. For those who are skeptical of its rollout, there were several data points suggesting it is further along than HD was at this point:

  • One sports league is reported to be using 4K for instant replays, as it allows them to electronically zoom in after the play and still maintain HD quality.
  • Sony was showing 4K content from their service, a beta of Netflix’s 4K service and a 4K feed from Time-Warner’s New York Local News channel.
  • The cost of cameras continues to drop with Black Magic Design showing a 4K camera for less than $3k; granted with lenses and other accessories, the pricing for a complete unit might be double that price, but the bigger point is how far down the price curve 4K is compared to HD at this point in its rollout.
  • Several companies displayed larger than life 4K monitors. These would make incredible digital signage solutions.

Another trend, which is similar to other industries, is the substitution of purpose-built appliances (e.g. encoders) for generic compute hardware that can be repurposed as needed.  This provides more efficient utilization of resources. It also provides for business models where video resources can reside in a cloud, reducing upfront investment.

Despite FAA rules (which are being contested) prohibiting their commercial use, drones were everywhere at NAB. One of the drone makers- Dji – showed an amazing piece filmed mostly indoors (unclear whether the FCC claims that indoor airspace is also under their control) with shots that could have required multiple cameras and jibs. It was filmed in multiple rooms, on multiple floors in one continuous shot. The pilot of the drone did an amazing job capturing the footage.

The following pictures provide some other observations from the show [Note, apologies for the poor quality of some of these photos; many were shot on the run without time for review]:

FCC Allows Prohibition on Exclusive Cable Programming Contracts to Expire

[Editor’s Note:  Paul Feldman is an attorney with the communications law firm Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth, Washington, D.C. (feldman at fhhlaw.com)]

Recently, the FCC released a Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that will likely impact the ability of some cable operators and telco video providers to obtain cable TV programming. In the Order, the FCC declined to extend the exclusive contract prohibition in its cable TV program access rules beyond the previous October 5, 2012 sunset date. This prohibition generally banned exclusive contracts between any cable operator and its affiliated programming vendor for satellite-delivered cable programming in areas served by the cable operator.

In place of the blanket ban on exclusive programming contracts, the FCC will fall back on case-by-case evaluation of such contracts, in which cable/telco/satellite operators (multichannel video programming distributors, or “MVPDs”) denied access to cable programming may file a complaint at the FCC. Importantly, this case-by-case approach will include the establishment of a rebuttable presumption that an exclusive contract involving a cable-affiliated regional sports network (“RSN”) has a prohibited purpose or effect.

It has been a long journey getting to this point. In the 1992 Cable Act, Congress enacted a prohibition on exclusive satellite-delivered cable programming contracts, but provided for termination of that prohibition on October 5, 2002, unless the FCC found that it “continues to be necessary to preserve and protect competition and diversity in the distribution of video programming.”  In June 2002, the Commission found that the exclusive contract prohibition continued to be necessary, and retained the exclusive contract prohibition for five years, until October 5, 2007. After conducting another review, the Commission in September 2007 concluded that the exclusive contract prohibition was still necessary, and it retained the prohibition for five more years, until October 5, 2012.  In 2011, the D.C. Circuit upheld the FCC’s ruling, but the Court made it clear that given the changes in the MVPD and programming industries, it did not expect, nor would it likely uphold, the FCC extending the prohibition past 2012.

As a result, under the FCC’s complaint process, MVPDs that have been denied access to cable programming will now have the burden of showing that the exclusive contract at issue is “unfair” based on the facts and circumstances presented. The FCC has held previously that determining whether challenged conduct is “unfair” requires “balancing the anti-competitive harms of the challenged conduct against the pro-competitive benefits.” In addition, the complainant will have the burden of proving that the exclusive contract has the prohibited “purpose or effect” of “significantly hindering or preventing” the complainant from providing satellite cable programming or satellite broadcast programming. Notably, the new Order states that it is “highly unlikely” that the FCC would find that the withholding of local news and local community or educational programming is prohibited, as local news and local community or educational programming “is readily replicable by competitive MVPDs and exclusivity has played an important role in the growth and viability of local cable news networks.” This would be in contrast to RSN programming, for which the FCC established a  rebuttable presumption that such exclusive contracts are prohibited, due to the unique nature of each sports event.

While some parties had urged the FCC to make the case-by-case litigation a bit less burdensome and time-consuming by enacting additional new rebuttable presumptions, the FCC deferred, and rather seeks comments on them in the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“FNPRM”). Among other issues, comments are sought on:  (i) a rebuttable presumption that a complainant challenging an exclusive contract involving an RSN is entitled to a standstill of an existing programming contract during the pendency of a complaint; and (ii) rebuttable presumptions challenging an exclusive contract involving a cable-affiliated “national sports network”.   The FNPRM also seeks comment on revisions to the program access rules to ensure that buying groups such as NCTC utilized by small and medium-sized MVPDs can file complaints on behalf of their members.   As part of this last issue, the FCC proposes to require that such buying groups open their membership on a non-discriminatory basis.

So, the net and most immediate effect of the FCC’s action is that the blanket ban on exclusive cable programming contracts is gone. When faced with denial of access to cable programming, operators will have to file a complaint at the FCC. While that process should be a bit less burdensome and time-consuming if the disputed programming is an RSN, the process still will not be quick or easy. And while the additional rebuttable presumptions proposed in the FNPRM  would be somewhat helpful, it will be an uphill battle to get the FCC to enact them. Telcos with questions or concerns on this issue should contact their telecommunications counsel.

Xfinity on the Xbox – Sounds Xciting, but….

The new Xfinity Xbox application sounds exciting, but may be more valuable as a marketing channel

Comcast Xfinity
Xfinity Xbox App - Couldn't Remember Password

Xcitement abounded the other night as I downloaded the new Xfinity for Xbox application. Having recently authored a report on multiscreen video, I have waited for this app. Other than forgetting my user name, operation was simple enough and I was viewing on-demand programs in very high quality, high-definition in a flash. Will I regularly use this Xbox application? Probably not and here is why:

  • Log-in – It is a chore to log-in every time one wants to use the app.  Sure, I could stay logged in, but then the little ones in the household would also have access to all the content.  Parental controls, sure I could try that, but I don’t want to invest the 15 minutes required to figure them out and then my kids would hack them anyway.  Because it is an on-screen keyboard, it is fairly easy for someone to see the password (particularly an 11 and 13-year-old with photographic memories).
  • Another App – sure, the Xfinity TV app for android could be extended to allow browsing titles and authentication, so that prying eyes wouldn’t be able to see my password, but that doesn’t seem to exist, at least at this point.  And even if did, whether I will use my phone as a remote is another question.
  • Bandwidth Cap – It surprised me that there was no warning about possibility of exceeding bandwidth cap, but I may be paranoid based on an article I wrote on this topic. Granted, this would be a great deal of TV watching (100 to 800 hours per month by Comcast’s estimate) . [5/15/12 update – Comcast explains in this post that they are using  “Differentiated Services Code Point (“DSCP”) markings” to differentiate Xfinity TV traffic from regular Internet traffic, which means the On-Demand traffic is staying on the Comcast Managed Network].  
  • Lack of Content:  Sure, there was some content, but many of the movies required subscriptions to premium services (which we don’t have).

We will probably continue to watch TV via HDMI-connected PC.   Don’t discount the Xbox as a way to watch video, based on this focus-group of one, as the Xbox has proven to be the most popular platform for at least one Over-the-Top service; Rovi’s CinemaNow (according to Richard Bullwinkle of Rovi speaking the recent OTT Conference).

When I downloaded the app, I must have granted permission to Microsoft to send me blasts about new Comcast releases (I just received the note about Comcast supporting HBO GO).  Prior to this, I had never given Comcast the email address I most often use.  Even if I never use the app again, now Comcast has a marketing channel they never had before; having that way to relay messages to me.  This channel may be even more valuable than the actual Xbox application.

Network Neutrality Revisited: Level 3 Complaint & Comcast Response

Level 3 Communications Complains about Comcast's excess charges for video content delivery:

Level 3 Communications Inc., a Broomfield, CO based Internet backbone company ("carriers carrier") complained Monday November 29th that Comcast Corp. is charging it an unfair fee for the right to send streaming video and other large data files to its subscribers.  The company said it agreed to pay "under protest" to avoid service disruption.

Level 3, recently partnered with Netflix to deliver the latter's very popular video streaming service (on- line movies and archived TV shows) to broadband Internet subscribers.  Level 3 helps Netflix improve online video delivery by navigating it over less congested Web routes. It said earlier this month it would need to boost its own network capacity due to its deal with Netflix, which accounts for about 20 percent of primetime U.S. Internet traffic (more than either You Tube or Hulu or other on-line video content provider).

Is this not Bit Torrent deja vu?   The Level 3 complaint comes two years after  the 2008 FCC decision for Comcast to stop slowing and blocking its subscribers from accessing an online file-sharing service called Peer-to-Peer from BitTorrent.  That P2P service enabled broadband Internet subcribers to swap movies and other huge files over Comcast's Internet connection.  A Federal Court subsequently overturned the FCC decision and questioned the FCC's authority to regulate Internet Service Providers and impose any net neutrality rules.

Here is Level 3's statement complaining about Comcast which is attributed to Thomas Stortz, Chief Legal Officer of Level 3 (not clear who it was intended for other than an open letter to the general public):

“On November 19, 2010, Comcast informed Level 3 that, for the first time, it will demand a recurring fee from Level 3 to transmit Internet online movies and other content to Comcast’s customers who request such content. By taking this action, Comcast is effectively putting up a toll booth at the borders of its broadband Internet access network, enabling it to unilaterally decide how much to charge for content which competes with its own cable TV and Xfinity delivered content. This action by Comcast threatens the open Internet and is a clear abuse of the dominant control that Comcast exerts in broadband access markets as the nation’s largest cable provider.

On November 22, after being informed by Comcast that its demand for payment was ‘take it or leave it,’ Level 3 agreed to the terms, under protest, in order to ensure customers did not experience any disruptions.

Level 3 operates one of several broadband backbone networks, which are part of the Internet and which independent providers of online content use to transmit movies, sports, games and other entertainment to consumers. When a Comcast customer requests such content, for example an online movie or game, Level 3 transmits the content to Comcast for delivery to consumers.

Level 3 believes Comcast’s current position violates the spirit and letter of the FCC’s proposed Internet Policy principles and other regulations and statutes, as well as Comcast’s previous public statements about favoring an open Internet.

While the network neutrality debate in Washington has focused on what actions a broadband access provider might take to filter, prioritize or manage content requested by its subscribers, Comcast’s decision goes well beyond this. With this action, Comcast is preventing competing content from ever being delivered to Comcast’s subscribers at all, unless Comcast’s unilaterally-determined toll is paid – even though Comcast’s subscribers requested the content. With this action, Comcast demonstrates the risk of a ‘closed’ Internet, where a retail broadband Internet access provider decides whether and how their subscribers interact with content.

It is our hope that Comcast’s senior management, for whom we have great respect, will closely consider their position on this issue and adopt an approach that will better serve Comcast and Comcast’s customers.

While Comcast’s position is regrettable, Level 3 remains open and willing to work through these issues with Comcast. However, Level 3 does not seek any ‘special deals’ or arrangements not generally available to other Internet backbone companies.

Given Comcast’s currently stated position, we are approaching regulators and policy makers and asking them to take quick action to ensure that a fair, open and innovative Internet does not become a closed network controlled by a few institutions with dominant market power that have the means, motive and opportunity to economically discriminate between favored and disfavored content.“

http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20101129006456/en/Level-3-Communications-Issues-Statement-Comcast%E2%80%99s-Actions

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Opinions:  John Ryan, a Level 3 legal official told Reuters the fee Comcast was asking was unprecedented. "Prior to Comcast's demand, no other broadband access provider had demanded a toll in order to increase interconnection capacity," Ryan said.  One source in the content delivery network industry said it is unusual but "not unheard of" for a last mile provider to charge for connectivity."

Here is Comcast's Response to Level 3 Charges:

Comcast's statement, attributable to Joe Waz, Senior Vice President for External Affairs and Public Policy Counsel, Comcast Corporation:

“Level 3 has misportrayed the commercial negotiations between it and Comcast. This has nothing to do with Level 3’s desire to distribute different types of network traffic. Comcast has long established and mutually acceptable commercial arrangements with Level 3’s Content Delivery Network (CDN)competitors in delivering the same types of traffic to our customers.

Comcast offered Level 3 the same terms it offers to Level 3’s CDN competitors for the same traffic. But Level 3 is trying to undercut its CDN competitors by claiming it’s entitled to be treated differently and trying to force Comcast to give Level 3 unlimited and highly imbalanced traffic and shift all the cost onto Comcast and its customers.

What Level 3 wants is to pressure Comcast into accepting more than a twofold increase in the amount of traffic Level 3 delivers onto Comcast’s network — for free. In other words, Level 3 wants to compete with other CDNs, but pass all the costs of that business on Comcast and Comcast’s customers, instead of Level 3 and its customers.

Level 3’s position is duplicitous. When another network provider tried to pass traffic onto Level 3 this way, Level 3 said this is not the way settlement-free peering works in the Internet world. When traffic is way out of balance, Level 3 said, it will insist on a commercially negotiated solution.

Now, Level 3 proposes to send traffic to Comcast at a 5:1 ratio over what Comcast sends to Level 3, so Comcast is proposing the same type of commercial solution endorsed by Level 3. Comcast is meeting with Level 3 later this week for that purpose.

We are happy to maintain a balanced, no-cost traffic exchange with Level 3. However, when one provider exploits this type of relationship by pushing the burden of massive traffic growth onto the other provider and its customers, we believe this is not fair. To use Level3’s own words:

'To be lasting, business relationships should be mutually beneficial. In cases where the benefit we receive is in line with the benefit we deliver, we will exchange traffic on a settlement-free basis. Contrary to [other ISPs] public statements, reasonable, balanced, and mutually beneficial agreements for the exchange of traffic do not represent a threat to the Internet. They don’t represent a threat to anyone other than those trying to get a free ride on someone else’s network.’”

http://blog.comcast.com/2010/11/comcast-comments-on-level-3.html

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Who are the Regulators that can rule on this dispute?

With the FCC's rule of the Internet questioned by Federal Court, who can make a ruling on this case?  The Justice Department?The Commerce Dept?  Give me a break- they don't know anything about telecom  If regulators sided with Level 3 in this case, it could potentially have ramifications for Comcast's proposed NBC Universal deal, which is being reviewed for anti-trust concerns. Comcast previously stated that it expects approval of the NBC Universal deal by year-end.  That deal is being reviewed by the FCC, which declined comment on the statement from Level 3.  If Comcast does acquire NBC Universal it will own a whole lot of video content.  Do you think the company might charge more, block or slow down on-line content transmitted from competitive content delivery companies to protect its vested interests?

The FCC is scheduled to meet on December 21, with 'net neutrality' said to be at the top of its agenda.  Why not meet on Christmas Day instead?  The results would likely be the same- nada!

Music for the Living Room and Beyond – A Look at MOG

Does technology drive us apart? This was an interesting question posed in a Rockline interview with the Wilson sisters of the rock band Heart. With MP3 players, game devices and smart phones, people may be connected, but, as Stephen Stills might say, not necessarily connected with the ones they are with.

The timing of last night's interview with Ann and Nancy Wilson was impeccable, as I have been reviewing MOG for the past couple of weeks.  MOG, an on-demand, subscription-based service, is looking at bringing social back into the music listening experience.  The Heart interview gave me the perfect excuse to, once again, test MOG’s claim of 8.5+ million songs under license. Sure enough, Heart's new album Red Velvet Car instantly popped up on the MOG site.

The MOG Player screenshotPrior to pressing the play button, I could peruse the web page and see that, of 26 ratings, their new album had received 5.0 out of 5.0. There were also reviews of the album from various web sites accessible by clicking on a link. Instead of a redirect to another web site, a new window on the MOG site would appear. Similarly, clicking on the Lyrics tab shows the lyrics for a particular song; no having to jump to another site that probably has doesn’t have the rights to post lyrics, but has lots of pop-up ads and who knows what sort of viruses.

To this last point, one of the major benefits of MOG is that it is a licensed offering that streams and plays music without the need for loading plug-ins or installing peer-to-peer or any other kind of software; all that is needed is an up-to-date browser. This makes it safe and easy to use. A nice feature is that one can try it for 3-days at no cost and without having to enter a credit card.

The on-demand nature of the service is nice, as well the ability to jump back to a previous track. One of the nicest features is that it brings the album concept back, as opposed to some of the Internet radio solutions where you hear related songs or artists (which this service also provides). The albums play just as they did from the 70s, except there is no need to worry about a skipping needle. The 320 Kbps audio encoding provides higher quality than the typical Internet radio station. Once the album plays, it will continue to play music from that artist or others, depending upon how the listener sets his preference.

The MOG site is as much a social sharing site as anything. It is easy to rate, comment and share playlists. Playlists are an important part of the site and include listener-generated playlists, artist playlists and MOG playlists. This is a great way for those of us who like music pushed to us. Unlike most of the Internet or the satellite radio services, the listener may also search for and select a song or an album to play on-demand in a “pull” model.

People on the go can listen to music on Android-based devices either via streaming or download. I found the Android application a bit cumbersome and not nearly as responsive as the browser application. Of course, this may have also been a function of Android 1.6, my ancient G1 phone and the mobile network. The Android application is sure to get better and it does point to the value-add of being able to listen anywhere

The service does not allow you to login at two different places at a time, which is not a showstopper, but it would prevent the kids from listening in one room, while the parents are listening to something else in another room. On the other hand, this forces a sort of communal experience. For example, in my household, we turned down the generic music on the game console while we were playing a game and instead listened to an album from my days of future passed.

The service is off to a great start and I can see addition of some other cool features that will make it that much easier to use, such as:

  • Sub-accounts to allow more than one stream at a time
  • Integration with a content identification service like Shazam. I find that I use Shazam to identify long forgotten songs that I would like to buy (but never do). A Shazam-like feature would be a natural way to build a custom playlist for listening on MOG.

The most interesting thing about this service may be the business model. At $4.99, with access to a library so big and with so many easy-to-use features, it is an excellent value. For $9.99, one gets the music portability.

It goes beyond price, as MOG sees their service as an interesting add-on for IPTV or broadband plays. Like a subscription on-demand for video, they see this as a simple way to bring music to the living room without having to rewire the house or make a purchase decision every time they want to listen to a new song. Today's announcement of MOG’s integration with Roku provides a way for viewers/listeners to do things such as search, interact and view album artwork via a 10-foot interface on the television.

MOG anticipates extending their model to broadband and IPTV providers. This could be an interesting value-add to bundle with a broadband subscription. The nice thing about this feature is that because it is audio, it does not clog the network. This is a service that broadband service providers should monitor or at least give a listen.


Notes:  

  1. Red Velvet Car is a quintessential Heart album that is worth a listen.  For background on the album and their career of the Wilson sisters, the Rockline interview will be archived and available for the next two weeks at, http://www.rocklineradio.com/replay/replay.php
  2. MOG's model reminds me of a video interview I had with Fred Von Lohmann a couple of years ago, when he was still with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and how he alluded to a similar model as a way to move to a new of distributing music and ensuring compensation of artists.  Click here to watch that interview.  
  3. Except for original Beatles music, there wasn't any song or album I couldn't find.  Granted, my tastes are probably pretty mainstream, but I found complete catalogs from various artists covering the 60s to the present.  

People Die, Profiles Don't

audience photoHow many accounts, or how much information do you have on-line with banking, e-commerce, email, social networks, and such? What happens to these on-line accounts after death? Does your executor have access to these digital assests, does your family, does a friend? Who controls this information after death?

You may be surprised just how confusing and difficult it can be to access or delete on-line data after death. Jesse Davis of Entrustet talked to me after his Pecha Kucha presentation during High Tech Happy Hour in Madison, WI. Jesse talks about the Justin Ellsworth court battle with Yahoo to access emails and accounts after their son's death. This also raised question on if Justin wanted his parents to have access, and what about estate planning.

Watch this ViodiTV video to hear Jesse Davis talk about three types of digital assets; (1) economically valuable; (2) sentimental; and (3) private accounts.  Jesse also addresses the future issues of posting too much personal information on-line, and how this could impact the future of politics. How will the youth of today run for public office when so much private information is public. Produced by Roger Bindl HEM Productions, for ViodiTV.

Is Content Becoming Dust in the Wind?

Dust Storm PhotoAre we reaching a point where content becomes dust in the wind – like the song by Kansas? Or, is the dust growing with all those memories and dreams recorded forever along with the observers and seekers? It seems like a part of both as people create 1 billion posts per day on Facebook, 12 million tweets per day on Twitter, upload 1.7 million minutes of video to YouTube each day, post over 1 million blogs per day, and that’s just a start to the daily growth.

 That’s a lot of content or dust, but hey… Google is indexing all of it, supposedly forever, so the dreams and memories should continue, and Facebook will help to create more memories as people share their thoughts and get photos of them uploaded and tagged by friends. So, what better way to market your company than to throw more dust to the wind, so long as it’s not forgotten?

That's partially what some social media “experts” are preaching now day. Create more and more content so your company will be found on the net. Your home page is no longer enough, you need posts on Facebook, Tweets, more video on YouTube, and blog posts with relevant and valuable information – as if you’ve got time and relevant information to regularly blog about.

So I sound a bit skeptical? Well, not really. But I am wondering where this is taking us. Will information become so diluted by it’s own mass that finding relevant information will be akin to finding a quark in the universe? Is this really a long term, effective way to market your company? Or will people just get tired of it all – which is already happening. Many long term users of Facebook are leaving it, and people are getting more concerned with personal data becoming public or kept forever in that large search engine of dust.

I wrote a few weeks back on how people are leaving social networks for the real world and I continue to read more about that trend. Do a search for “why I quite Facebook” and see how and why people are leaving, but keep in mind that your search results will also be kept forever in a database by Google – possibly with your name or address. Watch the program “Inside the Mind of Google” for an eye opener, or a piece from the New York Times on the program. Keep in mind that even if you aren’t logged into Google they could get your street address from the IP address on your computer – I have proven that to myself from more than one location, and it was eye opening.

My conclusion from all of this is to recognize potential pitfalls and make a plan to use the web wisely. I really don’t want to visit Facebook to learn more about your company. The fact is I get frustrated when companies send me away from their website. Even for video… don’t send me away to YouTube. Upload there if you want but embed the video on your own site. It doesn’t take any of your bandwidth, and there are lots of other options with BlipTV, Vimeo, and other video service providers.

Experiment with Facebook and Twitter before you jump onto the bandwagon. You might just learn why it's easy to get tired of it, and the current hype could be just that. There may be situations where I’m totally off with my observations, but I don’t think it’s the win for all that’s being sold to all. To some extent a lot of this is about getting information on you for selling to you… remember when we worried about that with television.

Sources:

You Can’t Friend Me, I Quit” On Facebook’s fifth anniversary, a not-so-fond farewell by Steve Tuttle, Newsweek Web Exclusive, Feb 4, 2009

Facebook Exodus” by Virginia Heffernan, The New York Times, August 26, 2009.

How to Quit Facebook” on Wikihow.

Tweeting, texting render avid users ‘present yet absent’ by Olivia Baker, USA Today, Aug. 3, 2009.

Marketing Mecca and Business Panacea?" By Roger Bindl, Viodi View.

"Inbound Marketing," VideoBlog by Roger Bindl on HubSpot.

"Facebook Chat: 1 Billion Messages Sent Per Day," by Ben Parr, June 15 2009, Mashable The Social Media Guide.

Tweets Per Day” Social Media.

Zoinks! 20 Hours of Video Uploaded Every Minute” YouTube Blog, May 20, 2009.

Inside the Company That Mistook Itself for a verb” Neil Genzlinger, Dec 2, 2009, The New York Times.

49 Amazing Social Media, Web 2.0 And Internet Stats”, Adam Singer, TheFutureBuzz, Jan 12, 2009.

Dust Storm Photo" WikiMidea Commons, George G. Marsh Album. April 18, 1935, Texas.