Netflix Plans to De-clog the Internet’s Bandwidth

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At peak hours, Netflix makes up a whopping 37% of all internet traffic in North America, which is a huge congestion problem. Now it appears that it may have found an answer.

Netflix has been quietly testing a new way to deliver all the streaming content on its servers, without sacrificing video-quality for movies. Each episode of “The Office” was encoded at several different qualities which could shift according to variations in a customer’s connection. That way it can max out on the actual quality the viewer sees without causing artifacts or pixelization. Years ago, when they adopted this algorithm, Netflix developed what’s called a bitrate ladder. Some of those gains come from changing that up and compressing things like cartoons down further and more efficiently, while making sure that things like action movies still get all the love they deserve.

Without seeing this plan in action, we can’t yet say whether the process truly makes for a better or worse viewing experience; maybe the difference is as indiscernible as Netflix claims. But that “one-size-fits-all” fixed bitrate ladder didn’t account for scenes with high camera noise film grain noise, meaning that even a 5800 kbps stream would still “exhibit blockiness in the noisy areas”.

Netflix is now busy re-encoding its entire library, which is a massive undertaking. Also on some slow connections the video quality often dropped to 480p. Previously, the same watcher would have just been able to watch the show with a resolution of 720×480, and still used more data.

As a whole, the new model should give Netflix customers better-looking content while using 20% less bandwidth.

Will We See More Mobile Use with Comcast Data Limits?

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Comcast has recently offered Atlanta customers the option of getting an unlimited data plan for an extra $35 a month, as they have been subject to the data cap (300 gigabytes) since 2013. It’s a limited trial, but the economics of Comcast’s unlimited plan make it a potentially dramatic shift in the way we’ll buy broadband in the future. If Comcast decides this trial is a working model, other markets where the data cap is in place could start seeing similar offers, and it’s not crazy to think the plan might someday roll out nationwide.

Cellular providers have been selling mobile Internet like this for years. You know how it works: Go over your monthly limit, and you’ll face penalties such as reduced speeds or expensive overage fees. In the select markets where Comcast has experimented with data caps, the company assesses a $10 charge for every 50 GB a customer uses beyond their monthly limit. And yes, some Comcast users actually reach this point, paying as much as $30 a month in overage fees. When Comcast surveyed these folks, it found that 60% were willing to pay a flat $30-$40 a month extra to be freed from overage payments, hence the $35 a month that Atlanta customers pay.

You can probably see where this is headed. Even if you don’t use a ton of data now, more of our work and play is moving to the Web. Netflix is the cause of one-third of the country’s Internet traffic, and we’re only just getting started with driverless and connected cars, smart appliances and other devices associated with the Internet of Things.

However, Comcast isn’t the only one looking into data cap-associated fees for unlimited usage. A study last year found Internet providers everywhere could benefit financially from introducing data caps and other features associated with metered usage plans.

So how will this possible change effect mobile users? You might be more inclined to have your data increased, as it is much more convenient to have your data readily available to you on your mobile. How will these data limits persuade you to forget home internet all together, and opt for mobile data instead?

Will the “Right to Be Forgotten” End in the EU?

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Google is refusing to follow a French Ruling that is asking to delete records globally, each time an individual requests the right to be forgotten. The company is clarifying its stand saying that the European ruling of Right to Be Forgotten should not be applied globally. By not following the ruling, Google might be inviting trouble and is likely to be fined for its stand.

CINIL, the data protection authority in France, made the order on the basis of the European court ruling that Google will have to delete irrelevant and outdated information when it receives a request from the individual or organization. Since the ruling, Google has received millions of requests and even cleared many of them. But it is refusing to accept the order that asks it to remove the name from the global list, arguing that the search is already being routed locally.

Google has further pointed out that one country should not have the authority to decide and control what content users in another country can find and access. The company notes that such a measure isn’t necessary, because as much as 97% of Internet users in France access a European version of Google’s search engine.

Google argues in a new post on its official blog for Europe: If the CNIL were to get its way, “the Internet would only be as free as the world’s least free place.”

Sky High Wi-Fi

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In many places around the world, Internet connectivity is an almost unheard-of luxury. Roughly 4 billion people have no access to the web. Much of India doesn’t even have functioning lavatories, public or private. Much of the Third World went straight to mobile phones and never developed a copper wire infrastructure, which makes delivering Internet at reasonable speed hard and expensive. What to do?

The answer from two of our online overlords came into closer focus this week when Facebook revealed their Internet drone and Google announced that it was working with Madagascar for that island state to be the first customer for its balloon based platform, Project Loon. In both cases, the idea is to get a platform high enough to beam a laser-based Internet signal to Earth, which can then be distributed through a network of repeating towers to remote towns and villages.

Both projects have a pretty high gee-whiz factor. The Facebook drone has the wingspan of a 737 and in theory, will be able to deliver “tens of Gigabits per second” from twice the height at which a 737 would normally fly. It’s solar powered and pretty much Star Wars awesome. The Loon is a little more pedestrian, but still way cool. Think microwave tower suspended under a Zeppelin.

In principle, all this tech applied to bring the Internet to billions of poor people is a laudable, perhaps noble idea. Communication brings people together. Having access to the world anywhere in the world no matter your status is surely a good thing? But so is clean water, childhood immunization, education for girls and women, the end to genital mutilation, universal health care and contraception…the list goes on.

Whether you like Bill Gates or not, you have to grant that he and his wife have almost single-handedly taken on some of the greatest curses of the poorest people in our world and made a huge difference. They have pretty much eliminated the horrific parasite Guinea Worm, and they are closing in on a bunch of other diseases which plague the world’s poor. They are doing this with well-managed grants; they have donated over $30 Billion so far. I have no idea how many Loons or drones you could get for $30 Billion —a few I’m guessing — but how about we eliminate Malaria first?

The sad fact is that to the narcissistic tech wonders who rule Silicon Valley, Drones and Loons are cool. Malaria, not so much. How about we do the Loons and Drones, but we donate an equal amount to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and help them give a reasonable standard of life to the future customers of those Wi-Fi services?

Fiber for Free?

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Google is now bringing its high-speed Internet connection, Google Fiber, to public housing scattered throughout the U.S. in order to ensure students can get online whenever they want completely for free. Google’s new initiative is part for the ConnectHome program launched by the government along with the US department of Housing and Urban Development. Google did not specify how many individual homes will be included in the new program.

As of now, Google Fiber is only available in a handful of locations including Austin, Texas; Kansas City and Provo, Utah. However, there are plans for expansion in Phoenix and Portland. As part of its plan of bringing Internet into public housing residents, Google also announced that it will offer digital literacy program for people who lack basic computer education or for those who are not familiar with the Internet. An early trial of the program was undertaken and proved that half of those who signed up for the program completed and passed the training.

Other Internet service provider has also showed their intentions of joining the project of bringing low-cost Internet to public housing. Century Link is planning to release a low-cost monthly Internet in Washington and Cox Communication is also gearing up to do the same in Louisiana.

Breaking the “Capacity Limit” in Fiber Optics

With the amount of internet-connected devices increasing every day, the need for better, faster Internet is significant. University researchers have come up with a very clever solution to this problem.

Engineers at the University of California, San Diego have broken the “capacity limit” for fiber optic transmission, paving the way for faster, longer and potentially cheaper fiber networks. Currently, there is a limit on the intensity of light you can send through a fiber optic link, which arises from the fact that when you increase the intensity of light through a fiber cable, noise, distortion and signal dilution increases. This is called the optical Kerr effect, and it causes problems for fiber network designers.

Eventually the Kerr effect becomes so great that, at high intensity levels, distortion entirely prevents an outbound signal from being correctly interpreted by a receiver. The issue gets worse the longer a cable is, so to increase the transmission rate through a fiber optic link by increasing the intensity level while keeping noise at bay, you have to include signal repeaters along the way.

This new breakthrough helps increase the capacity limit of high-bandwidth fiber optic cables by conditioning signals with “frequency combs”, allowing the receiver to predict any noise that is introduced during the transmission. The ability to predict noise patterns means the receiver can reconstruct the intended data from the noisy signal. Thus, the amount of power that can be sent through a fiber optic cable can be increased significantly without worrying about the effects of noise. Researchers were able to increase the signal power in a fiber cable by 20 fold and still get data at the end.

The use of frequency combs also means data can be sent along longer cables without the need for repeaters, which has the potential to reduce the cost of fiber networks. For example, engineers were able to send data through over 7,000 miles of fiber cable with standard amplifiers and no repeaters. With this breakthrough, hopefully we can see the capacity of fiber cables increased beyond what is currently possible in real-world applications.

The Subscription Game

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I was very impressed to read today that Dollar Shave Club just raised an additional $75 million to support their growth. I love these guys with a passion. I have to buy razors and I only like the good ones, but paying a fortune for the Gillette product has gotten up my nose for as long as I can remember. There are two marketing triumphs of the past 20 years: Starbucks, who got us used to paying $5 for a cup of coffee and Gillette, who has convinced the American male to spend $7 a blade. Both brilliant moves.

The Dollar Shave guys (and their imitators, who now include Gillette) simply mail four really great blades to your house each month for just $9. It’s simple, it’s brilliant and I can now forget about buying blades. They are one of the latest successes on the subscription circus, and they won’t be the last.

As a keen podcast listener, I’m constantly assFullSizeRender (1)ailed by subscription offers. I’ve been a member of Audible for close to a decade, and I have about 1,000 audio books in my library. I joined Blue Apron a few months ago, and ever since then, I’ve been cooking pretty much Cordon Bleu meals for two to three nights a week. It includes every single ingredient and the recipe to make it happen for $10 per person, per meal. I have no idea how they do it for the price, but it’s amazing. It’s also much cheaper than shopping for two and watching produce I don’t need go off. Here’s a pic of the very tasty salmon cake burgers I made last night:

Some of these services save money, all of them save time to some extent or another, and some are just wildly convenient. It feels like this is a trend that is building steam. Online shopping, especially Amazon Prime (a subscription service) has seriously hurt shopping malls. They are closing by the thousands all over the nation. Online music wiped out all physical copies of music as we knew it, and live music became the dominant way artists make money. Even if all that these services do is free up time for us to binge watch Orange is the New Black on our Netflix subscription, that’s a good thing in my mind. I’m doing less of what I hate and more of what I like. I’m in. Next up: Trunk Club for buying clothes.

Reasons to Hate Your Cable Company

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Ask pretty much any household about the most hated and most intractable monthly bill; the chances are they will cite the cable company. Even though I live in what amounts to the low desert, where 76 and sunny is the norm and 100 degrees is not uncommon for three months of the year, the cable usually out strips even my electricity bill. Though, I do have whole-house DVR with 60+ Mb up and down and I have to have HBO for Game of Thrones and my very own (made just for me and ten thousand other industry geeks) Silicon Valley. The price never comes down and the quality of service rarely goes up without a corresponding increase in charges.

So, it was with some glee today that I learned of the impact that Google is having on Charlotte, NC and surrounding cities. In response to Google announcing that it will be bringing Google Fiber to those towns, Time Warner Cable announced that it will be delivering six times the speed of the current service for no extra cost starting this summer. Six times faster!

We all know that we are living in a cable monopoly, where we take what we are granted and keep our mouths shut, but six times faster? Really? So now the cat is out of the bag: the cable monopolies are deliberately not giving the US the kind of world-leading internet infrastructure it deserves because they are a monopoly and they don’t have to. Once again, (as in Kansas City a year or so back) Google shows up with great service at a great price and miraculously things get way better almost immediately.

With the rapid growth of streaming devices, you can get a good subset of what you actually want to watch (as opposed to the seven hundred channels of un-watchable ad-stuffed garbage) for a few tens of dollars a month — not the hundreds most of us pay right now. So come on over Google; Riverside County is a great place badly in need of your wonderful cable service. Maybe we can lift the jack boot of Verizon FIOS off our throats.

FCC Spells Out Net Neutrality… in 400 Pages

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The Federal Communications Commission spelled out how it will preserve the open Internet, releasing a 400-page detailed PDF that reviews its new, stricter regulations for broadband services found here.

The agency’s commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the order last month but did not release the order itself. Instead, Chairman Tom Wheeler and the agency served up select details through a fact sheet, press conferences and an appearance earlier this month at the Mobile World Conference trade show in Barcelona.

It marked the first chance for the public to get a full look at the order, which reclassifies broadband as a so-called Title II telecommunications service under the 1934 Communications Act. That reclassification allows the FCC to regulate providers using rules originally established for the old telephone network. This legal definition establishes broadband as a “common carrier,” a centuries-old concept that means carriers’ networks must be open to everyone. It also gives the FCC unprecedented authority over the industry.

Despite its length, the order is a must read for anyone interested in the issue, known among regulators and the industry as Net neutrality.

While consumer advocates and online businesses such as video-streaming service Netflix cheered the FCC’s stricter regulations, broadband providers such as Verizon and Comcast will likely sue the FCC to block the order. Their concern is that the Title II reclassification gives the FCC authority to set rates and impose tariffs that could translate into higher fees to consumers, stifle innovation and discourage companies from building new broadband networks and improving existing ones.

The FCC’s order is culmination of a roughly yearlong debate, complete with increasingly heated rhetoric. The Net neutrality issue went mainstream in June after comedian John Oliver delivered a 13-minute rant that went viral, resulting in a flood of comments to the FCC that temporarily crippled its public-comment system.

While the full document runs to 400 pages, the actual text of the new rules is only 305 words long. The rules prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing traffic on both wired and wireless networks. They also ban Internet service providers from offering paid priority services that could allow them to charge content companies, such as Netflix, fees to access Internet “fast lanes” to reach customers more quickly when networks are congested.

Reclassifying broadband as a utility gives the FCC its best shot at withstanding legal challenges. The courts have twice tossed out earlier rules aimed at protecting Internet openness. The FCC chairman has said repeatedly the agency does not intend to set rates or add new taxes to broadband bills. More than 100 pages of the 400-page document released Thursday explain that forbearance.

Creeping Grass Roots of Democracy?

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I have long lamented the slow lingering death of our democracy, stifled by big brother and big business…I wonder if tech that might finally be changing that. Two stories gave me hope this week…both have been around for a good while and you could hardly find more different topics. The first is Net Neutrality.

This became an issue when the supreme court threw out their earlier rulings last year, essentially requiring that the FCC had rule on Net Neutrality or “Open Internet” and in spite of all the lobbying dollars spent by Big Telco they came down on the side of regulating the Internet like water or electricity. Naturally people will still get different service levels depending on what service they subscribe to but your ISP will not (legally) be able to slow down your access to a service because it’s not offered by them or one of their partner companies. In spite of the obvious benefits of this measure the right wing-nuts and the big business they shill for are complaining up a storm that this is government interference. What’s fascinating…even amazing is that the FCC received over four million messages about this issue, the vast majority of which were private individuals expressing support of Open Internet. Four million!  The campaign to support Open Internet was waged by all kinds of companies and entities through social media, Podcasts and millions of discussions on thousands of online news stories in a desperate attempt to stop us falling further under the sway of Big Telco… and it worked. technology facilitated the discussion and gave the people a voice.

At the other extreme end of the spectrum recreational Marijuana was legalized (after a fashion) in Alaska and Washington DC this week.  In both cases the “powers that be” fought the measures tooth and nail, even threatened to jail the mayor of DC if it passed. Unfortunately the ground swell of people who are sick to death of being told what they can and can’t do by an over bearing militarized police state carried the day. Like Marriage Equality the corrupt right wing, big business religious bigotry which has held sway over so much of our history is coming up short because with social media and the increasingly fragmented media they can no longer control the message or the media. We can expect to see prison reform next on the agenda.

It’s fascinating to see that just as social and new media has driven the democracy campaigns across the Middle East and Asia the very same channels are allowing people in America to register their protest and make their voices heard. God Bless The USA….and Twitter.