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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 commentary@broadbandcensus.com.

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

Debra Berlyn: What’s New in 2022 for Aging and Tech?

Older adults continue at a rapid pace to adopt tech that assists the aging process.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Debra Berlyn, executive director of GOAL

It’s the start of a new year and time to view what’s on the horizon for the latest technology innovations. To our great anticipation, the most significant technology event of the year, the Consumer Electronics Show, returned in-person to Las Vegas!

CES 2022 literally rolled in with some eye-catching innovations and gadgets unveiled at CES, notably with a BMW that can change its color and patterns with the use of a phone app. CES also unveiled the usual army of robots to clean the house, provide learning skills, and entertain. The Ameca robot is “human-like” and can be programmed with software using artificial intelligence, offering both speech and facial/object recognition. Ameca will engage in conversation and complement you on your lovely red hat.

The more important technology story for consumers for 2022, isn’t just the “wow” innovations that may or may not make it to market this year, it is the tech that will enhance and improve all of our lives. This is particularly important for the aging community, who increasingly rely on tech to stay connected to family and community, and as an important component of healthcare.

Those 65 and older continue to adopt tech at a rapid pace, narrowing the gap with their age 18-29 younger counterparts. Now, over 65% of older adults have broadband at home, 44% have tablets, and 61% have a smartphone. These “basics” form the foundation for layering the more sophisticated health and wellness and smart home innovations available today, and on the horizon.

The pandemic has emphasized the importance of tech for the aging community. A recent AARP study has confirmed that technology is a “habit” that is here to stay for older adults. The past couple of years has led to an emphasis on tech devices to monitor our health, help us stay fit and get connected to our health care professionals.  We are spending more time at home for work and leisure, and while at home we want to be able to manage our energy use, home security, appliances and more.

According to the chief technology officer at Amazon, Werner Vogels, one of his primary predictions for tech this year is, “In 2022, our homes and buildings will become better assistants and more attentive companions to truly help with our most human needs. The greatest impact in the next few years will be with the elderly.”

Technology can provide solutions to make life easier for older individuals

A critical opportunity that technology provides is to solve tough problems such as how to make life just a bit easier for older individuals and address their greatest challenges as they age.  Voice assistive tech continues to be a popular device for older adults. One-third (35%) of those 50-plus now own a home assistant, up from 17% just two years ago, with the voice assistant serving as a significant tool to reduce isolation for older adults.

While the AARP study found that growth of ownership of voice assistants, such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home, may have slowed for younger demographic groups, ownership continues to be on the rise for older adults.

Here are several examples of innovations for the aging community:

  • The Labrador Retriever is an assistive “robot” that empowers individuals to live more independently by providing practical, physical assistance with everyday activities. The robot is a rolling container with trays that can be “commanded” to go to different locations in the home to retrieve objects and carry them to various locations. It maps the home and “learns” how to navigate the space to operate wirelessly.
  • Tech devices that enable older individuals to track several critical aging factors continue to be introduced and desired in the marketplace. The “Buddy” from LiveFreely, is smartwatch software that monitors and manages fall prediction and detection, medication schedules and reminders, and emergency notifications. With alerts to family members, caregivers and emergency services providers, it provides wearers with an enhanced sense of security and independence. The software operates on both the Apple and Fitbit device.
  • For any aging adult with mobility issues, or their caregivers, you know that just getting around can be a challenge and now there are advances to the most needed tool in aging: the walker. One company, Camino, has developed a sleeker, advanced walker with an ergonomic design, lights and improved navigation for bumps in the road to provide greater walking assurance and balance.
  • The “Freestyle,” from Samsung, is an entertainment component of the smart home for older adults. It is a projector device with accessibility features that can be used inside the home or out, to project content such as a movie, photos or messages from any smartphone onto any surface.

AARP’s 2022 study on technology trends also recognizes that the increasing older demographic has significant purchasing power in the consumer market, including for technology spending. The study found, “Tech spending in 2020 among adults 50+ is up 194% (from $394 to $1144) to modernize, update, or create a better experience online.”

It also projected that by the year 2030, “the 50-plus market is projected to swell to 132 million people who are expected to spend on average $108 billion annually on tech products.”

In the coming years, older adults will have a wide range of new and innovative products to exercise their market power and find the right technology to enhance and assist their lives as they age. Over the past decade, technology has empowered older adults to be increasingly more independent, battle isolation, and stay informed and connected.  While we can’t predict the future, the next decade should be an exciting opportunity for new innovations for the aging community.

Debra Berlyn serves as the executive director of The Project to Get Older Adults onLine (GOAL), and she is also the president of Consumer Policy Solutions. She represented AARP on telecom issues and the digital television transition and has worked closely with national aging organizations on several internet issues, including online safety and privacy concerns.  She serves as vice chair of the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer Advisory Committee and is on the board of the National Consumers League and is a board member and senior fellow with the Future of Privacy Forum. This Expert Opinion is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Digital Inclusion

Digital Inclusion Leaders a Critical Step to Closing Digital Divide: National League of Cities

The National League of Cities said government leaders need to have ‘multiple points of engagement’ with communities.

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Lena Geraghty, National League of Cities director of urban innovation

WASHINGTON, January 20, 2022 – To understand the digital divide, cities need to include digital equity leaders in their broadband needs assessment programs, the National League of Cities said at an event on community connectivity challenges Wednesday.

A broadband needs assessment would allow city leaders to explore the extent of the digital divide in their communities, said Lena Geraghty, the National League of Cities’ director of urban innovation.

“[A needs assessment] enable city leaders to dig into who’s being excluded, what’s currently available in your city, and what solutions city leaders can use” to close the digital divide, she said.

“The community is going to know best about where access exists, where gaps exist, and the needs that will make connectivity better,” Geraghty said. To get the best picture of a community’s need, stakeholders must find and include the community’s digital equity leaders in the data-gathering process, she added.

“These could be people that are knowledgeable about digital equity or people that are experiencing the digital divide,” she said. “Think really broadly about what it means to be a leader and the type of information these folks can bring to bear in solving the digital divide in your communities.”

Geraghty said it may be useful to formalize the leaders’ work by creating a broadband working group or ad hoc committee led by the city’s government. “Giving some roles and responsibilities can help everyone move in the same in direction, there’s agreement, and really clear goals and outcomes.”

Geraghty added that it’s important for government leaders to establish multiple points of engagement for the community. “It’s not enough to gather data or information from people once,” she said. “The state of access to the internet and devices is always changing,” so leaders should create multiple touch points for community input.

The National League of Cities released its Digital Equity Playbook for cities in December, walking readers through how they can promote digital equity in their cities. The playbook has a four-step process on how to get started with digital equity.

By walking readers through the process of connecting with the community, evaluating the connectivity landscape, gathering foundational information and reporting on findings, city leaders will be prepared to target broadband funding to unserved and underserved areas in their communities.

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Environment

FCC Commissioner Starks Says Commission Looking into Impact of Broadband, 5G on Environment

Starks sat down to discuss the promise of smart grid technology for the environment.

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FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks

WASHINGTON, January 19, 2022 – Former and current leaders within the Federal Communications Commission agreed Thursday that it is important to make sure the FCC’s broadband efforts support the nation’s goals for the environment.

On Thursday, during a Cooley law firm fireside chat event, Robert McDowell, a former FCC director, and current FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks discussed how broadband expansion and next-generation 5G mobile networks will affect the environment.

Starks said that the commission is currently focusing on answering that exact question and are evaluating the current attempts to protect the environment, as more money is expected from the federal government and as broadband infrastructure expands. That includes putting more fiber into the ground and erecting more cell towers, but also allowing for a broadband-enabled smart grid system that will make automated decisions on energy allocation.

Smart grid systems, for example, provide real-time monitoring of the energy used in the electrical system. These systems can help to reduce consumption and carbon emissions, Starks said, by rerouting excess power and addressing power outages instantaneously in the most efficient and environmentally friendly manner. The smart grid systems will monitor “broadband systems in the 900 MHz band,” said Starks.

Starks also noted the Senate’s “Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation” initiative, which would set apart $500 million for cities across America so they can begin working on ways to lower carbon emissions.

FCC also focused on digital discrimination

Starks said the commission is also focusing on “making sure that there is no digital discrimination on income level, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin,” and that it all comes down to funding and who needs the money.

He stated that the first step is to finalize the maps and data that have been collected so funding can be targeted to the areas and people that need it the most. Many have remarked that the $65 billion allocated to broadband from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will not be divvied out until adequate maps are put in place.

Starks noted that broadband subsidy program Lifeline, although fundamental to some people’s lives, is significantly underutilized. Starks stated that participation rates hover around 20 percent, which led the FCC to explore other options while attempting to make Lifeline more effective. For example, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program – which provides monthly broadband subsidies – has been replaced by the Affordable Connectivity Program, a long-term and revised edition of the pandemic-era program.

Starks and McDowell also stated their support for the confirmation by the Senate of Alan Davidson as the permanent head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and expressed that Davidson will be a key player in these efforts.

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