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Bob Frankston: From Net Neutrality to Seizing Opportunity for New Networks

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Network neutrality is an important issue. We mustn’t allow transport owners to limit our ability to communicate. But, network neutrality in itself positions the internet as a telecommunications service. We need to step back and recognize that the internet itself is part of a larger shift wrought by software.

I thought about this more when I found myself in my hospital room (after knee surgery) unable to open and close the shades by myself. But yet I could control the lights in my house!

A recuperation aided by carefully architecting home lighting to maximize existing technologies

It wasn’t simply that I built a one off special case but rather I carefully architected my home lighting control implementation to minimize the inter-dependencies while taking advantage of existing technologies.

For example, to the extent I could, I avoided depending on the accidental properties of silos such as Zigbee. I normalized any transport to simple packets. This is how the internet works – it normalizes the underlying infrastructure to IP, so I don’t care if a particular segment is asynchronous time-division multiplexing or cellular. I can use the same technique as in tunneling internet protocol through Bluetooth using the general serial protocols.

Software has given us the ability to stitch things together. In designing (and redesigning) applications we have also gained an understanding of the importance of (dynamic) architectural boundaries that minimize coupling (or entanglement).

Thus, with an IP connection I could insert shims (or workarounds, as long as they preserve the architectural integrity) such as network address translations or, indeed, treat the entire telecom system as a simple link. I can normalize this by overlaying my own IP connection on top of what I find, including existing IP connections (as we do with virtual private networks). This allows us to implement and then evolve systems as we improve our understanding.

Modern broadband networking is not like the old telecom paradigm

In the telecom paradigm I’d have to rely on the network to assure a path from my phone to a device in my house as a virtual wire. But in the new paradigm we have relationships that are abstract. We can represent the relationship “[a, b]” where a is the app element and b is the device (or virtual device).

It needn’t involve a physical wire. The network connection is not a layer but simply one resource I can use. It does require thinking differently and discovering what is possible rather than having rigid requirements. Though I avoid depending on a provider’s promises, I may be limited by policies that second-guess what I’m doing.

This is why neutrality is an important principle. That includes not doing me favors by second-guessing my needs and thus working at cross purposes as I innovate outside their design point. A better term is “indifference,” because the intermediaries don’t know my intent and thus can’t play favorites.

Paywalls and security barriers make it hard or impossible for open applications to work

More important is that it means that paywalls and security barriers may make it impossible for my application to work. I had to manually intervene to use the hospital’s Wi-Fi connection. I can do that in simple cases, so we assume that status quo is fine, but it is a fatal barrier for “just works’ connectivity.

As with any new paradigm it is difficult to explain because our very language embeds implicit assumptions. It also means that often those most expert in network architecture can get lost in their expertise. In the case of the internet I see this in the idea of end points identifiers being IP addresses assigned by network operators.

As one who takes advantage of the opportunities I find lying around, I view networks as just a means and try to program around limits. If the opportunities aren’t available, I can create my own.

The next version of internet protocol will provide new opportunities

One example is IPv6. Version 6 would make it easier to make a direct connection between two end points. But in its absence, I can cobble together a path using IPv4. This is one reason V6 adoption has been slow – we’ve been able to program around it, so it is nice but not necessary.

Of course, we do want to create opportunity. One such opportunity I call ambient connectivity – the ability to assume connectivity. This doesn’t mean there is always a way to connect but rather I separate out the problem of achieving connectivity from how we implement it.

It’s simple to think of providing connectivity using Wi-Fi but it’s not about Wi-Fi per se and it’s not about a mesh because it doesn’t matter how it’s implemented. Those are just examples. It’s about architecture and not the accidental properties of radios or wires.

It’s also about economics because the architectural separation means we can’t pay for the infrastructure by setting a price based on the value of the service because we just see raw bits out of context.

Devices and open interfaces remain a key part of the new networking equation

And it’s not just about networks. It’s about devices that have open interfaces. It’s about thinking about devices that can exist for a purpose but also have open interfaces that allow me – or you! – to use them as components. It is about devices and protocols that are smart but not so smart that they build in assumptions.

This is why Bluetooth is a problem: It is very tuned to use cases and protocols and limits me to a proximate relationship rather than factoring out distance.

It would be great to have a discussion of this new world that centers around relationships (binding) and software and creating reusable objects. We understand that meaning is not intrinsic. When we sit on a box it becomes a chair.

What is new is that we can use software to define (or redefine) what something is. A portable computing device is a telephone in the sense that it can run a telephony application. This is a sharp departure from the notion that a device is a telephone because it was built for that purpose.

Network neutrality will be increasingly hard to define when we aren’t using the services of network providers

Today’s internet is one byproduct in multiple senses. One is that we don’t need to build a physical network for one purpose. Another is that we don’t depend on networking as a service but simply ask for disparate facilities providers to help packets move ahead like a highway facilitates driving but doesn’t provide the rides themselves.

It’s also why we don’t apply common carriage to roads because they are inherently neutral in not knowing the drivers’ intent. It’s why network neutrality is a fine principle but is hard to define once we aren’t depending on network providers’ services.

It would be great to have a conversation about these big ideas. And part of it is also rethinking the internet. The particular protocols such as TCP are valuable, but we need to see them in context as means and not as rigid requirements.

The internet is just one example of what we can create when we have opportunity. Imagine what else we can do given opportunities.

Network neutrality is about networks. As I wrote in this space last December, we need to move on to just assuming connectivity as mundane infrastructure We can then shift our attention how to create and to what we do with the new opportunities.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com. Other commentaries are welcome, at [email protected].

Bob Frankston has been online and using/building computer networks since 1966. He is the co-creator of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program and the co-founder of Software Arts, the company that developed it, and is a fellow of the IEEE, ACM and the Computer History Museum. Read more at frankston.comhttps://rmf.vc/Bio and https://rmf.vc/InfraFAQ

(Photo of computer pioneer Bob Frankston by Dennis Hamilton used with permission.)

Bob Frankston has been online and using/building computer networks since 1966. He is the co-creator of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program and the co-founder of Software Arts, the company that developed it, and is a fellow of the IEEE, ACM and the Computer History Museum.

Digital Inclusion

Popularity Of Telework And Telehealth Presents Unique Opportunities For A Post-Pandemic World

A survey released earlier this month illustrates opportunities for remote work and care.

Benjamin Kahn

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Screenshot of Hernan Galperin via YouTube

April 20, 2021—A survey conducted by the University of Southern California in conjunction with the California Emerging Technology Fund explored the popularity and availability of opportunities for telework and telehealth in California.

At an event hosted by USC and CETF Monday, experts dissected the survey released earlier this month to explain the implications it may have for the future. Hernán Galerpin is an Associate Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California. He served as the lead investigator for the survey, which analyzed Californians’ attitudes towards their new schedules during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

The first statistic Galerpin noted was the extent of broadband growth in California between 2008 and 2021. According to the survey, in 2008, only 55 percent of Californians had broadband coverage. By 2021, the number had risen steeply to 91 percent, with 85 percent of Californian’s utilizing broadband through either a desktop, laptop, or tablet (with the rest connected exclusively through a smartphone).

This is significant because it helps to explain the next statistic Galerpin showed; according to his data, Galerpin stated that approximately 38 percent of employed adults worked remotely five days a week over the course of the pandemic, while 45 percent did not work remotely (17 percent worked between 1-4 days remotely).

When asked how many times they would like to telecommute to work, respondents were most likely to indicate a preference for what they had become accustomed to; those who worked from home five days a week had a 42 percent chance of preferring working from home 5 days a week; those who worked from home three to four days a week had a 35 percent chance of preferring a three to four day telecommute schedule; those who worked remotely one to two days per week had a 56 percent chance of favoring a one to two day telecommuting schedule.

The data collected also indicated that low-income and Hispanic workers were disproportionately unable to telecommute.

Overall, telecommuting five days a week was the most popular option, with 31 percent of total respondents favoring that arrangement. By comparison, only 18 percent of respondents favored a schedule without any telecommuting.

President and CEO of CETF Sunne Wright McPeak called this data “unprecedented,” and stated that broadband had the potential to serve as a “green strategy” that could limit the number of miles driven by employees, and ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as other harmful pollutants. According to the data, as many as 55 percent of work commutes could be offset by a reconfigured telecommuting schedule.

The benefits of broadband did not stop there, however. Data also indicated that nearly 70 percent of Californians 65 years and older were able to utilize telehealth services, whether that was over the phone/smartphone or computer. Unsurprisingly, wealthier Californians were also more likely to benefit from telehealth services, with nearly 56 percent of low-income Californians going without telehealth, compared to 43 percent of “not low income” Californians.

An additional positive sign was that the overwhelming majority of disabled individuals were able to utilize telehealth services, with 70 percent of disabled respondents indicating that they were able to do so over the course of the pandemic.

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Education

Multilingual Digital Navigators Crucial For Inclusion

Digital liaisons who speak multiple languages can help guide multilingual communities for the digital future.

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot taken from the Net Inclusion webinar

April 19, 2021 – Encouraging multilingualism among digital navigators will help facilitate better inclusion in digital adoption, experts said last week.

Speaking Spanish is a huge plus for digital navigators in Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, as many of its focused neighborhoods needing to be connected to broadband speak the language,  said Shauna McNiven Edson, digital inclusion coordinator at Salt Lake City Public Library.

Edson and other panelists spoke last Wednesday at the 2021 Net Inclusion Webinar Series hosted by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a digital inclusion advocacy group on what skills are needed to become a digital navigator.

At the Salt Lake City Public Library, progress is there but challenges persist for digital inclusion and navigation. Edson said there were about 450 participants in its library program’s group for digital inclusion. However, only about 5 percent of participants, or 22 people, have adequate broadband at home. Seventy-five percent of members said they needed help finding a computer or internet-enabled deice, and 10 percent of its 450 members have contacted the library’s support staff for It issues.

Digital navigators are crucial because they connect community members with the skills and resources they need to become digitally literate and help them get adequate broadband. Navigators can be volunteers or cross-trained staff who already work in social service agencies, libraries, health, and more who offer remote and socially distant in-person guidance. 

Compared to the rest of the country, Salt Lake City is highly connected, said Edson. Every community has a unique demographic make-up, and if the communities who need access to broadband mostly speak Spanish or English or even Mandarin, there should be community anchors with highly trained digital navigators to help the underconnected.

Andrew Au, director of operations at Digital Charlotte, said digital inclusion should include adult education. Every library and public institution that offers internet services should have digital navigators available and onsite to guide individuals in their communities and offer continuing education resources to keep digital skills literacy up, he said.

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Broadband's Impact

Mentorship Instrumental To Women Involvement in Telecom Industry

Experts advise mentorship and encouragement to get more women in the industry.

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Mitsuko Herrera, center, via Montgomery County, Maryland

April 19, 2021 – A group of women were asked to rate gender equality in their workplace on a scale of 1-10. Their average score? About a four. The solution? More mentorship early in their lives.

The women, experts in network companies, spoke at the event, “Women in Broadband: Achieving zero barriers,” hosted by fiber network company Render Networks last Wednesday.

Kari Kump, director of network services at Mammoth Networks, said that in the broadband industry, she rates it a four, and in government jobs, a bit higher at five. Kump said she sees lots of women in marketing positions and non-technical managerial positions that “may oversee tech.” She said the worst gender equality in her view is at the construction site, where women “pay the bills” in the office rather than being out on site.

What’s causing gender inequality? The problem starts long before the job interview. Mitsuko Herrera, from planning and special projects for Montgomery County, said in her current work, only 2 out of 25 colleagues are women.

“The opportunity may be there, but we don’t see a lot of qualified women in the industry,” she said. Even before they reach college, women and girls need to have opportunities for engagement across various industries. Having mentors at an early age would greatly increase women participation and influence at work. In the workspace, praising women privately is just as important as praising them publicly, said Herrera. Women need to know they are supported at all times with all people.

Having better representation at the table is crucial because diverse perspectives affect industry and society for the better, said Laura Smith, vice president of people and culture at Biarri Networks. “The groups making decisions should reflect society,” she said.

And even if there is diversity, it’s not enough to have women at work for diversity’s sake—you also need to listen to that diversity and not ignore it.

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