by Mike Corrigan
With personal computer processor speeds surpassing the one gigahertz mark, the real bottleneck to brisk Internet access these days is your confoundingly snail-like telephone modem. Well, there's simply no reason to muck about at rates of 56k or less any longer, for there are currently much speedier connection options for your consideration.
Think of it: always connected, yet with your phone line free to accept vital incoming calls -- when your computer is on, you are on with no busy signals or broken connections. Imagine being able to access all those incredibly entertaining/informative/necessary-to-the-continuation-of-life-itself web pages almost instantaneously at rates approaching one million bits per second. If you live in an area cursed with slow connection speeds, are tired of missing important calls due to tied-up phone lines or are just a speed freak salivating for the quickest access possible, you now have choices.
The two primary alternatives to the traditional dial-up Internet access are cable and DSL (or Digital Subscriber Line). Both are what are called "broadband" connections. In simplest terms imaginable, broadband gives you the ability to access more information, more quickly (think of your modem as narrowband). Both technologies make use of existing infrastructure. With cable, the data stream comes across along with your cable TV signal. With DSL, the information is carried through your current phone line. Both require the use of an external modem, which is then connected to your computer's Ethernet port. Both are fast, shredding traditional dial-up connections by a factor of at least 10. Remember that 3.5 MB file you waited 20 minutes to download last night? Well, with a broadband connection, you'll only have about 10 seconds to wait. No more long bathroom breaks for you, mate.
Why the need for speed? Whenever computers get a bump in performance speed, Web designers take full advantage, cramming more information into their sites, increasing the need for high-speed downloadability. With the increased bandwidth cable and DSL provide, consumers can take full advantage of the latest web developments, including large, high-resolution video clips, MP3, radio broadcasts and video game play (and, someday soon, live TV and more).
These technologies aren't universally available, however. Rural areas and far-flung suburbs are frequently without these services. But things are changing.
"The biggest limitation of DSL right now is distance," according to Qwest (formerly US West) Spokesman, Michael Dunne. "It's a fairly new technology, and as people order it, we kind of go about it on a case by case basis to see if we can hook them up. But basically, for you to get it, you have to be within three miles of a central office."
Other DSL limitations center on the fact that while phone lines are adequately positioned to carry the upstream and downstream digital information, they were originally designed to carry analog voice information.
"There are various encumbrances on the phone lines that are there to enhance voice transmissions. Some of those encumbrances are not very DSL-friendly. In some cases, we can remove them so that you can get DSL."
Cable Internet access is usually available wherever digital cable TV is found.
The advantages of one technology over the other? They are subtle, to say the least. Since DSL's data stream is carried across traditional phone lines and more households are already wired for phone service than for cable TV, just about every home is to some degree DSL-ready (providing the service is available in your area, of course). With DSL, you are also free to pick the Internet service provider of your choice. You can keep your current provider or sign up with one through the phone company.
With cable access, your local cable company becomes your Internet service provider. The hook-up is pretty straightforward, especially if you already subscribe to cable television. You don't need cable TV service to get connected to cable internet service and watching cable TV at the same time you are connected to the Internet is no problem as neither television nor data signals are affected by simultaneous use. For a fee, you can connect additional computers to the same cable modem, creating your own home network with all computers operating online simultaneously.
All this speed, of course, comes at a price. Both cable and DSL service will set you back to the tune of $20-$40 a month. In each case, that figure usually includes modem rental. Basic DSL service starts at around $20 a month but add an ISP and you're looking at doubling that figure. With cable service, your ISP is included for around $40.
But for some, it just might be the only way to fly. And as the networks reach the hinterlands and providers' costs drop, with any luck, so will consumer prices.
"This is fairly new technology," explains Dunne. "Moving forward, we really want to expand it as much as possible. At first, we started in the densely populated centers -- the downtown corridors and the larger neighborhoods. As we are able to export more of this technology, we're lighting up more offices to be able to provide DSL to more people."
Are you cable or DSL worthy? With a simple call to your local service providers, all your questions will be answered.
fighting for the Web
by Danny Schechter
"Preserve The Platform, Promote the Public Vision" was the slogan that Mark Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center threw out as THE challenge that media reformers must confront in the period ahead. He was trying to boil the problem down as a group of leading media-policy analysts gathered to discuss how to "promote democracy as digital discourse" at a seminar on broadband, Internet and the "digital divide," in the well-heeled offices of the Open Society Institute (OSI), the foundation formed by George Soros, one of the wealthiest men in the world.
The group included analysts and activists, media critics and foundation honchos, policy wonks and practitioners, librarians, lawyers and lobbyists. We were there to offer recommendations to Jack Willis, a veteran TV producer and OSI fellow about what foundations, including his own, should be spending their media money on. No doubt many of the attendees -- like myself -- had projects and agendas in need of financing and were secretly hoping that Jack would take us aside individually and slip a fat envelope into our hands. But that was not to be. (The truth is that many nominally independent organizations are dependent on foundation support. Happily, there are funders who recognize the need to support media reform.)
Instead, as each participant shared perspectives there was a clear sense that we are at a turning point in the battle to preserve public space in the media, online and off, as corporate power consolidates and becomes more dominant in the society at large. As Phillippe Riviere puts it in a LeMonde Diplomatique article, www.buythis.com: "The Internet is going through a phase of confrontation between the public's demand for autonomy and the companies' desire to control their customers. In order to make the elements of this control more palatable, they are dressed up as 'content.' "
We were warned that the Internet that we know today will soon be as obsolete as black-and-white TV. Why? Because decisions are being made right now about the future architecture of a next generation Internet that could limit access, control information, narrow diversity and, in effect, make us pay for services and information flows that we now access for free. A fee-based "walled garden" model, a la America Online, is the goal of the telecoms, cable companies and Internet service providers (ISPs), many of whom have merged into media monoliths like AT & amp;T. One insider predicted that in five years there will be only five ISPs left. AT & amp;T, which within the last two years swallowed up TCI and MediaOne, boasts that it plans to become the nation's only cable company.
The basic R & amp;D for the original Net was funded with our tax dollars through the Advanced Projects Research Agency (APRA) of the Pentagon. It was designed to link researchers and universities but eventually blossomed into today's sprawling, global consumer and business medium. From its inception, the Internet has been a model of how well-invested public money can achieve a public benefit.
Private commercial interests are financing the technical development for the next wave of online interactivity. But they have a different agenda, focused on their own interests -- not the public's. They are investing billions of dollars into broadband technologies to turn what has been largely an information-based medium into a video-driven, shopping mall-like entertainment emporium.
The battle lines are being drawn. International organizations, dominated by business interests, are already hard at work on new protocols and rules to rationalize and tame the Web. Writer Steven Hill asks: "How many people have ever heard of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers? Depending on whose description you read, ICANN is either an innocuous nonprofit with a narrow technical mandate, or the first step in corralling the Internet for commercial and other purposes."
ICANN is a nonprofit corporation that was chartered by the U.S. Department of Commerce in November, 1999, to oversee a select set of Internet technical-management functions previously managed by the U.S. government. In theory, a nonprofit can do the job as well as the government, but not if it's dominated by private interests and lacks accountability and transparency. Notes Hill: "These functions include fostering competition in the domain-name registration market (i.e. the selling of .com, .net and .org suffixes) and settling disputes over cyber squatting [the intentional buying of domain names like McDonalds.com for later resale at exorbitant prices to the corporation]."
Sound benign? Except that ICANN has operated secretly, even to most Internet users. The reason is simple: It is not being covered by the media. I recently saw a study by the Real News Network in Canada that showed how little coverage ICANN has received in the international media. The study compared mentions of ICANN to mentions of actor Tom Cruise. It was no contest; Cruise citations overwhelmed ICANN citations 95-1. (This may be somewhat meaningless, as Cruise's new film was being heavily hyped at the time, but it does reflect the way trivial entertainment gets the most attention in the media-news category.) The real "mission impossible" here seems to be getting the news media to focus on the interests behind what could be an attempt to not-so-virtually steal the Internet.
Elsewhere, corporations are insisting that they own the underlying technology of the Web and want to get paid by those who use it. British Telecom, for example, is claiming to have the patent for the hyperlink technology that is at the heart of the Internet's interface. Can you imagine having to pay BT a nickel every time you click on a link? Don't smirk. It could happen.
These convoluted claims and counterclaims will keep lawyers and judges busy for the rest of the millennium. Oh, and don't assume that just because corporations want to do something they'll be able to. Many of the biggest dot-comers, despite their impressive business plans and "revenue models," are operating on shaky ground. Amazon.com's financial bubble burst after industry analysts took a careful look at its retailing operation and found it way short of the credit and dollars needs to run the operation. Whoops, down goes the stock price. Even Jeff Bezos, "Mr. Amazon," is not immune to the law of gravity.
Open access is one of the key issues in the battle over whether big companies will control the next generation of the Internet by excluding content they disapprove of or by making it too expensive for smaller users to use. Already a federal judge in the United States has ruled against groups who want to preserve open access. As MediaChannel.org reported, an appeals court in Oregon has overturned an open-access ordinance in Portland, Ore., that was upheld by a lower court last year.
"This decision really puts the ball back in the FCC's court," explains Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education. "For two years now, FCC Chairman Kennard has been touting his go-slow, hands-off policy, assuming that the marketplace would solve the open-access puzzle. Instead, we've been treated to needless uncertainty, costly lawsuits and the specter of closed cable systems that effectively wall off portions of the Internet for purely private exploitation."
Veteran activist Chester and other advocates want the Federal Communications Commission to take a strong stand in this matter to preserve the diversity and democracy that have long been hallmarks of the Internet and to insure that the broadband lines of the future will be open and competitive. The cable companies are resisting this, as Tony Wilhelm of the Benton Foundation points out in his book Democracy in the Digital Age (Routledge, 1999), because they need to "recoup their investment in the upgraded infrastructure." He continues: "...the need to corral viewers into the net of advertisers means that citizens will be less likely to navigate noncommercial, civic environments online."
The key question is: What will the FCC do if and when the issue comes before them? DSL networks, used by telephone companies to provide speedier Net service, are governed by open-access requirements because they are provided by telecoms, which are regulated. Shouldn't the new broadband providers in the cable industry have the same requirements? If they don't, not-for-profit, civil-society sites will have a harder time finding audiences because they won't be available through cable modems, the prime delivery vehicle for broadband technology.
Those of us who want democratic remedies to prevail have more than big corporations to worry about. According to research from the Center for Information Policy, Americans are abandoning public space for home-centered private lives, consuming more and more media along the way and packing their personal environments with all manner of information technologies. As family sizes shrink, as more and more people live alone, the idea of robust civic centers shrinks as well. Add to this the "digital divide" that is an aspect of the growing gap between the wealthy and most working people -- and by no means just in the United States -- and you get an idea of the problems in promoting media equality. The challenge of providing online access to all is a big one, and not easily solved.
Civil rights activists are worried about this, too, as they should be. David Honig of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council submitted a brief to the FCC recently that invoked the memory of W.E.B. Dubois' prediction at the beginning of the last century that the defining issue of the 1900s would be the "color line." The defining issue of this century, says Honig, is "the information line -- the institutionalization of two societies, one information-rich and one information-poor." His group is going beyond demanding right of access to asserting a "media participation right" that is intended to reflect the ways in which consumers use media in their daily lives: as participants in the creation and transmission of content, as recipients of that content and as respondents to that content.
How will the courts handle a cutting-edge legal idea like "media participation rights"? As it happened, the day after the OSI seminar, I introduced this very idea in a speech to 180 Connecticut judges assembled for a professional conference. They were a stony-faced group more concerned with cameras in the courtroom than digital issues most didn't seem to know much about. Perhaps it's a generational thing, but I am not sure if the courts are savvy enough yet to rule proactively on issues like this.
It's clear that those of us who want to change the media order have a big job ahead of us. We need to find better ways to work together, to synergize at the bottom as big companies are doing at the top and then translate what we know into more effective messages and campaigns that will resonate with the consumers we want to activate as citizens.
Danny Schechter is the executive editor of
the MediaChannel.org and author of The
More You Watch, The Less You Know.
By David Kilmer
It's the stuff of Ray Bradbury's futuristic tales: A savvy 21st-century home that wakes you, brews your coffee, handles your errands, entertains you and sings you to sleep.
Now the future is here, and several Spokane area builders are planning entire communities of smart homes. The latest technology -- a house that knows what you want, and delivers -- is enough to make Bradbury drool on the keys of his old manual Underwood.
Those curious about the future can get a realtor to walk them through a model high-tech home at the Westwood Hills project west of Spokane. Here, a 48-home gated community will be linked by fiber optic cable, and each home will be wired to serve the buyer's wishes at the click of a mouse.
"Your lifestyle is completely programmable," says George Thompson, whose company, GT Contractors, is building Westwood Hills. "This house is wired to do anything you can think of.
"If you want certain lights off at night, you can do it. There's outside cameras the size of a golf ball for security purposes. There's a video camera in the nursery you can access from any TV or PC in the house. You could be at the office and look into your baby's room."
Movie lovers can pick from hundreds of titles, delivered instantly. Home workers can hold conferences and trade stocks in real time. Students can audit any major lecture, anywhere in the world.
Just another high-tech gimmick? Hardly, the builder says. Beyond all the entertainment and business possibilities, smart homes can be safer for the occupants, too.
"If you're a senior, this technology allows you to live here five to seven years longer than you could in a conventional home," Thompson says. "You can use services like food delivery, or fax in your prescription or dry cleaning. If you have an emergency, a remote device would dial the right numbers."
Between Spokane and Liberty Lake, at least 200 smart homes are on the drawing board. Technology experts say it's the way most homes will be built in the future.
"Across the country, in-home systems are being deployed like crazy," says Steve Yunker, Northwest account executive for World Wide Packets, a local company founded by technology guru Bernard Daines. "We're going to see 10 million homes smart-wired by the end of 2002."
In a smart home, each room is linked to a central system that can be used for streaming video and audio, super-fast web access and to coordinate smart appliances that work together. Builders point out that the houses are "future-proofed," meaning that any changes in technology can be updated by simply plugging new boxes into the home's existing network.
"In a matter of months, a conventionally wired house will be a horse and buggy," Thompson says. "We're going from that into the jet age."
Basic smart home connections cost $400 to $1,000. The systems at Westwood Hills start at $3,000 and go up from there. A recent custom-built house included an entertainment center and media room that cost $60,000.
"We're becoming a very fast, demanding society," Thompson says. "It's the shape of things to come. If you don't have fiber in three years, you're going to wonder why you don't."
Many people are already using a lot of the pieces that go into smart home technology, says one tech expert. What they're lacking is an efficient way of putting it all together.
"This becomes a seamless central point for everything in the home," says Chris Duffy, president of Advanced Communication Networks in Spokane, which worked on the Westwood Hills homes. "Instead of having a box for your alarm, cable, telecommunications and data, it handles everything in one fell swoop. Instead of having a multitude of systems, you have one."
Duffy, who's integrated in his home office, says it's changed the face of his work considerably.
"I no longer have to e-mail home and back," he says. "I can integrate into my servers at work, and still be at home if my kids need me."
Small business and home offices, or SOHOs, is where smart home technology really has a chance to shine, he says.
"It'll be a much simpler system for them to use," Duffy says. "It's not only easier, but they're going to see speeds that work for them. They won't be waiting. The machine will be waiting for them."
"It increases efficiency, allows for teleconferencing and enables bigger jobs like remote printing," Yunker agrees.
In the future, more people will be doing business from home, he says. In fact, one of the side benefits of smart home technology might be fewer cars on the freeway. Duffy cites a recent study in Seattle, which showed that if the money earmarked for a light rail system was spent on home office technology, the drop in traffic counts would be much greater.
What's to keep everyone from tapping into the 21st century tomorrow? The missing piece, at least for now, is true high-speed bandwidth lines and service providers needed to link everything together.
Today's trickle of information through conventional phone and cable lines isn't enough to allow many of the most impressive applications of smart home technology to really shine. So for now, it's as if the builders are hooking up massive water lines, waiting for the flow to be turned on.
"Developers are putting in these systems for marketability, future-proofing the home, and then waiting for service providers," Yunker says. "For a lot of this stuff, like HDTV, the best solution is fiber to the home."
Right now, he adds, if you want fiber optic cable, you might have to wait a year to get it.
"This is going to enable a lot of new start-up companies and services," he says. "Everybody's focused on the core of the Internet, but nobody's bringing the technology to your home."
For anybody impatient to out-Jetson the Jetsons, the good news is that Spokane is more wired than many people might think, Duffy says.
"Per capita, this town has more fiber in the ground than any other place in the country," he says. "As little as people think of it as a high-tech community, it is an extremely high-tech community."
In the last five years, companies including Nextlink, GST, McLeod USA, Avista Fiber and US West have quietly created high-speed networks as testbeds for various systems, he says, making Spokane ripe as a test market for many of the services that are coming down the technological pike.
"We call them 'dark fibers' -- networks that are nearly untapped," Duffy says. "The development of this new technology is going to light all that dark fiber up. In the next 18 to 36 months, you're going to see a huge change in the economy here," he says.
"The amount of companies offering this technology has jumped quickly to eight. I'll bet within six months, there'll be nearly 20. There will be some huge changes in this town, and the way it relates to the rest of the country."