Blackberry rolls a classic for executives of a certain age

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Some form factors just work.

The hot, new innovation from Blackberry last week is a small phone with a small, physical keyboard. Sound familiar? If not, Blackberry is helpfully calling it the Classic.

There is no shortage of people – Barack Obama and Arianna Huffington included – who like the 1990s Blackberry look. It offers unique functionality and the company’s new management is happy to provide it.

When I look at new products that catch on quickly, there’s a question I always ask myself: is the success due to designers offering consumers a genuinely new benefit, a way of meeting either a preexisting or completely new need? Or have they just identified a need without completely fulfilling it? In other words, is it a bridge product that’s merely the best that’s possible now?

The Apple Newton was a bridge product, one that identified the need and temporarily filled it until a truly useful solution was developed. So did the Palm Pilot. It’s starting to look like the iPad might go that way too. But the original Blackberry design still does what it was originally intended to do better than anything else, at least for some people. Messages, calls and contact and calendar info are accessible via a pocketable phone with a keyboard that many find comfortable.

The classic Blackberry is here to stay, just like the flip phone: it’s a convenient way of putting a limited set of important functions in a package that’s small, rugged and boasts a long battery life. Few people will make it their first choice, but many will love it as their second phone, the company phone they carry for their job or the one they stuff in a pocket on the weekend.

Blackberry will never regain its former glory, but by distilling the brand down into a solid niche it’s taking the penultimate step towards ensuring it will live on in the mobile ecosystem. The final – and necessary – move will come if and when it opens up to other operating systems.

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North Korea versus Comcast: guess who’s fighting for an open Internet?

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What do you mean, my Netflix is buffering!

As terabytes of emails and other data bounce around the web, the bad guy in the latest mega-crack story is beginning look less like North Korea and more like Sony and its corporate brethren. First, Sony hires one of the more notorious members of the predatory bar to threaten news outlets if they dare to use any of that information. Then it caves to pressure and threats – apparently originating in North Korea – and cancels the release of The Interview.

Fortunately, there are news organisations that aren’t much interested in a contingency fee lawyer’s opinion of journalistic responsibilities or freedom of the press. The Verge (albeit before the warning letter) ran a piece about how Sony and other large studios with the help of their Washington lobbying front, the Motion Picture Association of America, are colluding with state attorneys general to gain the kind of control over Internet traffic they were denied when the Stop Online Piracy Act was blocked in the U.S. congress.

With the help of another major studio owner known for aggressive back room politicking and generally bad corporate citizenship: Comcast.

According to the story in The Verge by Russell Brandom

“We start from the premise that site blocking is a means to an end,” says MPAA general counsel Steven Fabrizio. “There may be other equally effective measures ISPs can take, and that they might be more willing to take voluntarily.” According to the email, the group has retained its own technical experts and is working with Comcast (which owns Universal) to develop techniques for blocking or identifying illegally shared files in transit.

Google’s general counsel, Kent Walker, then slammed the studios and their lobbying front in a post on the company’s public policy blog

While we of course have serious legal concerns about all of this, one disappointing part of this story is what this all means for the MPAA itself, an organization founded in part “to promote and defend the First Amendment and artists’ right to free expression.” Why, then, is it trying to secretly censor the Internet?

It’s exactly the kind of self-serving conduct that network neutrality advocates cite as the theoretical dangers of letting monopolistic companies do their own thing. Except now, it doesn’t seem so theoretical.

The irony is breathtaking. Meet the Internet freedom champion of 2014: North Korea.

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Friends and foes give CPUC president a raucous send off

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Mike, half the people are here are here to congratulate you on your retirement…the others are here to make sure you’re retiring. It’s pretty indicative of the dynamics of this agency.
Danny Curtin, California Conference of Carpenters

Those few words summed up a sometimes laudatory, sometimes vitrolic 3 hours as friends, past and present colleagues, anti-wireless activists and others praised and attacked retiring California Public Utilities Commission president Michael Peevey at his final meeting yesterday in San Francisco.

It began with 30 speakers congratulating Peevey on the work he’s done in his 12 years presiding over the CPUC. The line up included several former commissioners, including Rachelle Chong and an impassioned Tim Simon who highlighted, among other things, the CPUC’s leadership in broadband development and closing the digital divide. Congratulations were read from former governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appointed and reappointed Peevey to the job. Many speakers talked at length about Peevey’s early career as a union organiser; fewer words were devoted to his time as a utility executive.

The accolades went on for 2 hours, an appropriate testimonial interlude for some, but aggravating to a large and increasingly testy contingent of the tin foil hat brigade, who were there to oppose new wireless electric smart meter fees which were on the agenda (and later approved). When their turn came, an even dozen stepped up to lambaste Peevey personally (at one point prompting a brief conversation between the speaker and a police officer) and the commission generally as they damned radio communications in all its aspects, and flogged the various other grievances they carried.

After a lunch break, commissioners worked through the agenda. At the end, current commissioners expressed their respect for Peevey’s leadership. The meeting wrapped up with Peevey’s own reflections about his term as president – more on that Monday.

Representatives from regulated public utilities were notably absent, not surprising given the ongoing accusations of back room dealing by Peevey and others. Governor Jerry Brown didn’t send a message either, but he’ll have the last word: he will shortly be appointing Peevey’s replacement.

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Public housing broadband heading for second class status in California

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Lower broadband performance standards for Californians living in public housing are one step away from adoption by the California Public Utilities Commission. As it stands now, later this morning the CPUC will approve subsidy rules for broadband facility upgrades in publicly supported housing that set 1.5 Mbps download speeds as the minimum acceptable level, and no service level requirements at all for upload speeds. The stuff that’s installed has to be capable of supporting higher speeds, but actual performance is optional.

That compares to a minimum standard of 6 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up for the rest of us.

The first draft of the rules with the lower standards were released a month ago. The California Emerging Technology Fund and the CPUC’s office of ratepayer advocates filed comments urging higher download and upload speeds, as well as cost requirements that were in line with low income broadband programs offered – in theory – by cable companies. Those offers, when you can break through cable’s – particularly’s Comcast’s – customer service hell and actually sign up, deliver 5 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up for $10 per month. The proposal in front of the commission this morning sets $20 as a minimum price, and reaffirms the lower-than-the-rest-of-us performance standards…

At this point, the Commission is not prepared to require applicants who are pursuing the expedited process to provide higher internet speeds because the Commission aims to encourage applicants and to gain broad infrastructure development. Requiring applicants to commit to providing residents with minimum download speeds of 1.5 mbps per unit, during average peak utilization periods, subject to reasonable network management practices is a reasonable floor while also ensuring that applicants are encouraged to apply for the Broadband Public Housing Account grant.

Setting the service fee price cap at $20 a month encourages applicants to provide broadband Internet service at a minimum of 1.5mbps per household during average peak utilization periods while also balancing applicants’ abilities to afford maintaining and operating the networks. Furthermore, the Guidelines have been amended to clarify that residents will be charged no more than $20 per month for Internet service.

The not-so-revised rules – which do, usefully, bump the first application deadline back to 15 January 2015 – are on the CPUC’s consent calendar this morning. Unless one of the commissioners pulls it off – either for discussion today or to hold for a later meeting – it’ll breeze through on a pro-forma vote.

Don’t bet on a delay. Today’s meeting is the last for CPUC president Michael Peevey. There’s a definite air of let’s clear the decks for the next president, whoever governor Jerry Brown appoints to the job.

Update: as expected, the CPUC approved the California Advanced Services Fund public housing broadband program this morning, as proposed. The most up to date version of the decision is here.

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You don’t have to drive to Silicon Valley if you’re already there

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Santa Cruz broadband policy keeps business in town, Silicon Valley leaders say.

Smart application of good broadband development policy helps local economies grow by attracting new businesses and helping existing ones grow. The place to look for it is Santa Cruz County, according to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. It’s an example that Silicon Valley sorely needs.

The group, which was founded in 1978 by David Packard and represents about 400 of Silicon Valley’s heaviest corporate hitters, announced it was giving its “Turning Red Tape into Red Carpet” award to Santa Cruz County, and supervisor Zach Friend in particular, recognising his effort over the past year and a half to simplify the rules for planting broadband infrastructure in public roads and placing it on county property.

He was supposed to receive it at a ceremony last week, but it was cancelled by heavy rain. On the balance, that was probably a plus – we need water right now as much as broadband. But unlike water, broadband never falls from the sky. It has to be built and local governments can make it easy or hard to do. Silicon Valley’s leaders think Santa Cruz County is making it particularly easy.

“The award recognizes economic development initiatives that focus on retaining and growing existing businesses within the community or region”, according to the SLVG press release announcing that Santa Cruz won its the business retention and expansion award. It’s one of six categories on the annual honors list.

Real estate developments, environmental programs and a new U.S. patent office in Silicon Valley were also recognised, along with another broadband initiative, San Jose’s public WiFi system, also known as the Wickedly Fast Connected Experience.

It’s the second accolade in as many months: the California Broadband Council just posted drafts of Santa Cruz County’s broadband policy as examples for the rest of the state. The initiative isn’t complete, though. The Santa Cruz County board of supervisors approved the policies in concept back in January, but county staff are still chewing on the details. Expect something final and, hopefully, comprehensive early next year.

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Broadband delayed is broadband denied

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FCC commissioner Ajit Pai objected to part of the FCC order approved last week that raised the minimum download speed for subsidised broadband projects to 10 Mbps (the upload standard remains at 1 Mbps). His objection wasn’t to the faster standard, but rather to the slow pace of implementation and what he sees as the commission’s failure to put its money where its mouth is

Three years ago, the FCC told rural Americans they could stop waiting. The Commission’s Universal Service Transformation Order created the Connect America Fund Phase II, which we anticipated would start paying for new broadband connections to unserved areas by January 1, 2013. Almost two years later, we’re finally launching that project. I wish we would have done so sooner—rural families and small businesses have already waited too long—but I’m glad nonetheless that we’re finally getting something done…

[Thursday's order] raises the speed benchmark to 10 Mbps—the right call in my book—but then largely ignores that this change roughly doubles the expected costs of deployment. An appropriate counterweight would have been increasing the term of support from 5 years to 10, but the Order only increases it marginally, to 6. This imbalance needlessly risks tipping the scales against deployment, which may strand millions of Americans in broadband dead zones for years to come.

In the rapidly evolving and growing broadband world, taking 2 years just to start the clock running on a 5 to 10 year process is too long. It’s a problem shared by the California Public Utilities Commission: subsidies authorised by the California legislature in 2010 in most cases won’t produce working broadband systems until 2015 or 2016. Additional money approved in 2013 might be spent a little faster, but likely only by a year or so.

Nearly all that time was and will be consumed with preparing rules, accepting and reviewing applications and complying with environmental red tape. Actual construction time for most projects can be measured in weeks or a handful of months.

Slow implementation ultimately means slow broadband: by the time the infrastructure gets built, the standard it was designed to meet is out of date and insufficient.

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FCC crushes old limits on rural broadband speeds

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The minimum download speed for FCC-subsidised broadband projects and services in rural areas is now 10 Mbps. The commission raised the standard on Thursday. Required upload speeds haven’t change, though…

The FCC will now require companies receiving Connect America funding for fixed broadband to serve consumers with speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads. That is an increase reflecting marketplace and technological changes that have occurred since the FCC set its previous requirement of 4 Mbps/1 Mbps speeds in 2011.

According to recent data, 99% of Americans living in urban areas have access to fixed broadband speeds of 10/1, which can accommodate more modern applications and uses. Moreover, the vast majority of urban households are able to subscribe to even faster service.

The vote was split in a bipartisan sort of way, with 2 democrats – Tom Wheeler and Jessica Rosenworcel – joined by republican Michael O’Rielly in fully approving it, and democrat Mignon Clyburn and republican Ajit Pai objecting to parts.

The rural broadband experiments currently under consideration by the FCC provide a firm basis for the decision. Nearly 200 applications came in, all purporting to offer service at least as fast as the new minimum. Of the 40 projects provisionally approved, 19 actually propose speeds of at least 100 Mbps down/25 Mbps up. There’s still quite a bit of due diligence to complete to verify all those claims, but right now 10 down/1 up is looking pretty ordinary.

The California Public Utilities Commission’s standard for subsidised projects is 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps up. (Unless perhaps you live in public housing – lower standards there are on the table this week). That benchmark was set in February 2012, when the limit was raised from 3 down/1up. It’s time to re-examine Californian minimums too, as demand and the gap between have and have nots, rural and urban, grows.

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Big questions for a California broadband subsidy proposal, but worth answering

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All over Helendale.

There’s a business case for resurrecting dead copper broadband systems. At least UIA thinks there is, given a sufficient subsidy from the California Advanced Services Fund. The company has submitted two projects for consideration for CASF grants in the current round. One is in Helendale, a small San Bernardino County community in the desert between Victorville and Barstow, where a cable system built by Falcon Cable – acquired by Charter Communications – was left to rot.

UAI proposes to re-plumb the original conduit with fiber…

Ultimate Internet Access…will utilize an abandoned Falcon Cable Company conduit system that currently passes 3150 residential lots within the primary community of Helendale…

[Helendale Community Services District] owns the cable infrastructure and we have a signed long-term lease agreement with this government entity. We will map the infrastructure, remove the cable from the conduit, clean the conduit and install the fiber network.

The $1.6 million grant request comes out to a subsidy of about $500 per nominal home – don’t assume that all of the “lots” are occupied, though. Even so, that’s a low number for a fiber-to-the-home project. On the face of it, the fact that there’s existing conduit makes for a relatively inexpensive build – 100 times cheaper than some other CASF projects.

There are a couple of soft spots in the application. Backhaul is via a licensed microwave link – likely fast, but not as likely to be able to support bona fide “services of 1 Gbps/1 Gbps, no cap, unlimited”. And if the conduit has not been mapped, let alone surveyed, then construction cost estimates contain a considerable element of hope.

Taken as a learning experience, though, it’s a welcome and worthy project. One of the big broadband challenges in California is figuring out what to do about legacy copper cable and phone systems in rural areas, many of which haven’t been upgraded to support broadband service. Charter has redlined other communities and AT&T. If UIA has an alternative, it’s worth pursuing.

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FCC blocks ViaSat’s end run around rural experiment standards

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You’ve got to hand it to the people at ViaSat. They don’t give up. If FCC tests – correctly – show that satellite Internet service has both advantages and disadvantages, then shout the good news loud enough to shake the rafters and browbeat the FCC into suppressing the bad. If the FCC wants to conduct an experiment to see if there are technologies and business models that can deliver urban-quality broadband service to rural customers, try to duck the quality requirements when no one is looking.

That’s basically what ViaSat tried to do when it asked the FCC to forget about latency standards in its rural broadband experiments. The FCC solicited a ton of suggestions about how it should run those experiments in a very public process earlier this year. The rules that resulted set a limit of 100 milliseconds of latency for funded experimental projects. Pretty simple.

Not simple enough, it seems. ViaSat – which can’t operate within those experimental parameters because of the laws of physics – tried a back door approach, asking the FCC to waive that requirement. The FCC’s answer was no

We conclude that waiving one of the core requirements for one bidder in the rural broadband experiments without public input after the close of the filing window would be prejudicial to the integrity of the competitive bidding process…Because ViaSat submitted its waiver request in its [application] submitted into the FCC Auction System, rather than separately in the docket, other bidders and the general public have not had the opportunity to provide input on the request.

Satellite technology’s advantages enable broadband service in desperate locations and under impossible conditions. The disadvantage is that capability comes at a cost, in terms of dollars and particular service metrics. The FCC is trying to find ways to dial down the desperation and expand the possible. It’s not a competition between interested corporations. It’s a quest for knowledge that will benefit customers.

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G.fast means fiber speeds over copper, up to a point

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The point where the infrastructure collapses.

A short range, high speed technology standard for broadband over copper phone lines has been approved by the International Telecommunications Union. The G.fast standard is intended to make fiber-class speeds possible over legacy lines, with a maximum distance of 400 meters between the customer and the nearest fiber node.

Practical distances, though, are much shorter. “Service rate performance targets” – total bandwidth which can be split between up and down loads – are…

500-1000 Mb/s for FTTB deployments at less than 100m, straight loops
500 Mb/s at 100m
200 Mb/s at 200m
150 Mb/s at 250m

Bell Labs has succeeded in pushing a gigabit over 70 meters of pristine plant and 500 Mbps over 100 meters of lousy copper, using its implementation of an earlier version of the G.fast standard.

But it’s not just a transportation protocol. The G.fast standard is intended to fit typical telco provisioning processes, enabling consumer installation with shrink wrapped kit, just like DSL. It makes it easy for telcos to upgrade service levels.

With one big if.

Telcos have to be willing to extend fiber further into neighborhoods and install more nodes. In urban business districts and affluent suburbs – high potential areas, as AT&T puts it – that’s not such a big deal. Either the fiber is already built or the revenue is there for the taking, or both. With the typical AT&T node feeding 600 to 900 meters of copper, doubling fiber distances and quadrupling the number of nodes requires a very sweet business case, if AT&T is to make the investment.

Mass market deployment of G.fast technology is still a few years out. It’ll eventually be a boon to those on the high potential side of the digital divide: places where incumbents have already decided to invest. For people living where telcos let copper rot on the poles, it’s not much help.

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