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Why Republicans (Finally) Opposed SOPA and PIPA

Originally House bill SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and Senate bill PIPA (Protect IP Act) were bipartisan bad policy. The Senate version was reported unanimously from The Judiciary Committee and was supported not only by Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) but also by the Senior Republican on the committee, Orrin Hatch (R-UT), These bills, written largely by Hollywood lobbyists, would have done great harm to Internet-enhanced freedom both in the United States and around the world. They were a massive over-reaction to the real (although not well quantified) problems of content piracy and counterfeit goods on the Internet. Oh yeah, they also helped protect Hollywood from "new media", legitimate or otherwise.

Internet denizens used the net and social media to fight back…and companies like Google and Facebook lobbied in more traditional ways as well. Wikipedia went dark for a day in protest exciting a rebuke from former Sen. Chris Dodd – yeah, the guy who received special treatment from the mortgage companies he defended in Congress, who is now the CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America:

"It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information and use their services.

"It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today, It's a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests."

Wikipedia, of course, is a free service; it's supported by donations. But Dodd thinks it is inappropriate for it to withhold service for a day to make a point. Of course, we all know what happens if a content provider can't reach agreement with a cable service - blackout. But that's OK; it's just about the money. But I digress.

By and large the first politicians to desert SOPA and PIPA were Republicans. This surprised many of my more liberal friends since, at heart, this is a civil liberties issue and they think of Democrats as being more committed to civil liberties. Here's Dan Gillmor:

"Two more Republican senators have withdrawn support for Internet censorship today, adding to a growing unease in Congress over what lawmakers had been poised to do with SOPA/PIPA. But the Democrats, for the most part, are still firmly in support of this pernicious legislation.

"For example, both California senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are co-sponsors of PIPA. They've taken Hollywood's side against Silicon Valley and the great majority of their constituents -- choosing to help an industry that holds back progress over one that creates it…

"I lived in Vermont for many years, and was a huge fan of Patrick Leahy, the longtime Democratic senior senator from the Green Mountain State. His ardent desire to pass PIPA is a sad reminder of how a man who once believed in civil liberties -- freedom of speech in this case -- has become a bought-and-paid-for hack on some issues, such as this one.

"Yes, many powerful GOP members -- especially Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, chief sponsor and author of SOPA -- remain firmly on the copyright cartel's side. But it won't be long, if current trends, before we'll have to call the Republicans the party of progress on this issue."

Now I do hope Republicans can become known as "the party of progress" on many issues, but I'm afraid I know the true reasons why Republicans quickly switched sides on this debate. It wasn't even the campaign contributions.

It was the content.

In domestic movies, Republican types are often the villains - evil bankers, car company executives, nuclear power plant operators, defilers of the environment. Oh, they don't always wear GOP pins, but we know who they are.

On the other hand, how many movies have you seen about evil environmental activists, labor leaders (since On The Waterfront), alternative energy developers, or community activists. These are always the good guys. And obviously Democrats.

When push came to shove, the Democrats stuck with the people who have portrayed them so nicely… and the Republicans got their revenge.

Don't worry, though; there's sure to be a sequel.

Related posts:

SOPA and PIPA are Bipartisan Bad Policy, Really Bad Policy

Reader Comments on SOPA and PIPA Internet Blocking Bills

Huh?

Posted a comment on CNN.com. See hilited contradiction below.

SOPA and PIPA are Bipartisan Bad Policy, Really Bad Policy

In China you can't get to some Internet sites: no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter. Search engines can't find the "Falun Gong" or "Tiananmen Square massacre". We would never do that kind of blocking here in the US, you say. Well, not so fast. If either House bill SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) or Senate bill PIPA (Protect IP Act) or something in between passes both houses of Congress and is signed by the President, Internet censorship, unreachable websites, and forbidden searches will be the law of this land.

The Arab Spring has been enabled by the inability of some governments to block Internet communication. SOPA and SIPA both require that Internet blocking tools be developed and deployed here. Maybe we trust our own government not to misuse these (I don't!); but do we really want to be responsible for the proliferation of censorship and blocked communication?

Why, you ask, would our Congresspeople want to impose censorship anywhere? Why would they want to slow down the most vigorous parts of the US economy?

The answer, at least, is simple. These are bills that Hollywood wants to protect its movies from online piracy, and Hollywood makes mega-campaign contributions and even gives Congresspeople bit parts in its movies. There is nothing partisan about campaign contributions.

To be fair, online piracy is a problem as are websites which sell counterfeit goods – especially counterfeit drugs. Owners of intellectual property including movies, books, songs, and trademarks are entitled to protection under the law. US Internet sites should not intentionally aid or abet domestic or foreign sites which are breaking the law. In fact we already do have laws on the books to protect intellectual property and prevent fraud.

Under the existing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), websites like YouTube have an obligation to remove material subject to copyright from their sites – if they are notified by the copyright holder that the material is an infringement. Companies like Google have been punished by fines for KNOWINGLY facilitating the sale of counterfeit products. The key issue is that YouTube is NOT responsible for checking every video that you upload to make sure you have not violated someone's copyright. If there were such an obligation – similar to requiring the Post Office to open every piece of mail to check for fraud or contraband, there would clearly be no services like YouTube. Similarly your Internet Service Provider (ISP) is not liable if you use your connection to download pirated stuff. If the ISP has to be a censor, then the ISP would have to examine everything you do (read your email, for example).

SOPA and PIPA are nominally aimed at foreign sites since US sites which break the law can (properly) already be shut down. However, foreign sites are beyond the reach of US law; so, the SOPA and PIPA logic goes, we must block access to these sites from the US. Blocking sites means that US search engines can't point to them (just like China); US domain name servers (DNS), which convert links like www.thisandthat.com to IP addresses reachable on the Internet, must "forget" how to convert the forbidden links; and our ISPs can be required to block our access to forbidden websites – meaning, of course, that our ISPs must examine which websites we do access and will probably have to keep a log to prove they blocked us when they should. Social media sites will have to examine all user-submitted content to assure that it does not contain forbidden links.

Under SOPA and PIPA you won't be able to access the same Internet that you see in countries which value Internet freedom; we'll be more like China and less like what we used to be. Here in the US we operate Internet proxy servers, which are used by many Chinese to evade their government's censorship of the Internet. These proxy servers might well be illegal under SOPA and PIPA because they would also provide a way to reach websites which would otherwise be banned in the US.

Google and Facebook will hire a legion of lawyers and survive even SOPA and PIPA, which they oppose; startup social media sites will have a hard time getting funding when they can easily be bankrupt by possibly frivolous lawsuits over postings by their users. There might not be a next Twitter. You may or may not be a user of social media, but you are a beneficiary of the fact that social media innovation creates jobs here in the US where most of that innovation happens – unless we choose to shut it off.

On his website, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and prime sponsor of PIPA, says:

"The PROTECT IP Act is supported by businesses and organizations across the political spectrum from labor unions to the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, from the National Association of Broadcasters to the cable industry.  "

He goes on to point out, correctly, that it was approved unanimously by all the Republicans and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. The first part of the press release makes the statement that the bill contains:

"..authorization for both the Attorney General and rights holders to bring actions against online infringers operating an internet site or domain where the site is 'dedicated to infringing activities,' but with remedies limited to eliminating the financial viability of the site, not blocking access [nb. emphasis mine]."

However, the description of the bill further down in the same press release makes very clear that this is all about blocking access:

"The court is authorized to issue a cease and desist order against a rogue website.  If the court issues that order, the Attorney General is authorized to serve that order, with permission of the court, on specified U.S. based third-parties, including Internet service providers, payment processors, online advertising network providers, and search engines.  These third parties would then be required to take appropriate action to either prevent access to the Internet site [nb. emphasis again mine] (in the case of an Internet service provider or search engine), or cease doing business with the Internet site (in the case of a payment processor or advertising network)."

Senator Leahy is usually a defender of civil liberties. It seems in this case he may have been misled by his friends in Hollywood about the draconian nature of the protections they are seeking.

According to Wikipedia:

"Opponents of SOPA include Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, DynDNS, AOL, LinkedIn, eBay, Mozilla Corporation, the Wikimedia Foundation, and human rights organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and Human Rights Watch

"On December 13, Julian Sanchez of the Libertarian think tank Cato Institute came out in strong opposition to the bill saying that while the amended version "trims or softens a few of the most egregious provisions of the original proposal... the fundamental problem with SOPA has never been these details; it's the core idea. The core idea is still to create an Internet blacklist..."

"Computer scientist Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet and Google vice president, wrote House committee chairman Lamar Smith, saying "Requiring search engines to delete a domain name begins a worldwide arms race of unprecedented 'censorship' of the Web," in a letter published on CNet…

"An editorial in Fortune wrote, "This is just another case of Congress doing the bidding of powerful lobbyists—in this case, Hollywood and the music industry, among others. It would be downright mundane if the legislation weren't so draconian and the rhetoric surrounding it weren't so transparently pandering.""

If this were just a commercial argument between old line entertainment businesses like the movie makers and new media companies like Google and Facebook, the issue would not be nearly as important as it actually is. These bills are the equivalent of banning all guns because some guns are used in felonies; they are the equivalent of allowing the government to exercise "prior restraint" of newspapers because sometimes libel gets published. These bills would move the US in the direction of some of the worst practices of China and give comfort to the world's remaining tyrannies who are trying desperately to cut off free communication. These are bills which must not pass.

If you agree, please email your Congresspeople.

Irene Lesson #3: Critical Data Belongs in the Cloud, Not Under It

"As flood waters from Tropical Storm Irene swamped the Waterbury state office complex, seven employees from the Vermont Agency of Human Services rushed inside to rescue computer servers that are critical for processing welfare checks and keeping track of paroled prisoners living around the state," according to a story by Shay Totten on the 7days blog Blurt. Two of the employees - network administrator Andrew Matt and deputy chief information officer Darin Prail - lost their cars in the parking lot as the river rose but kept on working to assure that our servers were not lost. "We didn't know how much time we had," Matt said, "and our job was to save the servers."

The story continues: "The employees' quick thinking is being credited with saving the state's largest agency from disaster. AHS oversees not only the Department of Corrections but runs programs that serve thousands of Vermont children, families, senior citizens and individuals with disabilities. Within days, AHS was up and running again — its servers installed at an alternate site."

Two lessons:

  1. Vermont is lucky to have such dedicated employees who took action regardless of personal hardship and even though experts said that particular area wouldn't flood.
  2. State servers and the data on them don't belong in state. The more critical the application, the more important that it be running in a cloud with several replications and that it NOT be vulnerable to any catastrophe that might hit the state. The Internet makes the actual physical location of servers irrelevant to users. It's more important that they be well-connected in cyberspace than they be located physically close to their users.

I know from Mary's experience in the State Emergency Operations Center, which also had to evacuate the Waterbury complex, that their computer systems became unavailable just when they needed them most. Sure, you can argue that all of the servers should've been on higher ground; but you never really know what kind of catastrophe is going to strike. In an emergency communication and power outages may be widespread as well as physical damage to buildings almost anywhere. When a disaster strikes, you want your critical data and servers (as well as your less critical ones) to be as far from the impacted area as possible; that means out-of-state. It is routine in cloud computing for Amazon or Microsoft or Google or whoever hosts the cloud applications to replicate them in several different locations so you don't have to worry about out-of-state catastrophes either.

Another reason for outsourcing state computing to the cloud is to make it possible to handle spikes in demand without having to have huge amounts of expensive standby capacity during normal times. When the recession first hit and unemployment claims skyrocketed, the newly unemployed had to endure the extra pain of unresponsive or unavailable servers because of the sudden surge in claims. What is an unmanageable surge of volume to Vermont or even California is a blip that a hosting service like Amazon won't notice. They won't run out of server capacity; they won't run out of Internet access capacity; and they won't be affected by instate earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, or floods just when you need them most.

Some people argue that critical state data – welfare records, for example – are only safe if hosted in state. That sounds right but it's wrong. The greatest threat to data is disgruntled or crooked employees. State employees know where the state's critical data is and may have a particular grudge against an individual or a department. Google employees are much less likely to have a grudge against anyone in Vermont or know anything about the specific nature of the data hosted on their servers. Moreover, the big hosting companies spend a fortune on both physical security and hacker-proofing. No state is going to be able to match that. Of course web-accessible applications need to be developed to be hacker-resistant; but that's true whether the hosting is in or out of state.

Employees of a cloud service are unlikely to go to the extremes our state employees did to save us from data disaster. But, since resources in a cloud can be replicated in several locations at little cost to the customer, such heroics won't be needed.

A final reason for moving state computing into an out-of-state cloud is cost. The big hosting companies have huge economies of scale which they share with their customers. Forward–looking companies have moved to cloud computing so that they can focus on what's best for their customers and products and leave the physical care and feeding of servers to those who do nothing else. Many investors I know won't look at a new company which plans to spend scarce capital on servers; inhouse servers are usually a waste of capital, an unnecessary risk, and too inflexible in dealing with unpredictable demand.

BTW, what goes for the state goes double for its towns. We don't know yet how many town records – computerized or otherwise – we're lost in Irene. A town size disaster is much more likely than a statewide one. And towns have even less resources to devote to servers and their proper backup and possible disaster recovery.

I understand that Vermont had to get up and running quickly and probably had to buy some new computers to do so. Nevertheless, one of the ways that we can learn from Irene and be stronger than we were before is to get our servers into the cloud and out of harm's way.

Related posts:

Owning Servers is Passé

Irene Lesson # 1 – Smart Grid Great for Power Restoration

Irene Lesson #2: Nothing in America is Shovel Ready – Until It Has to Be

Small Screen as Swiss Army Knife

Cyberlight

Somewhere in the dark grass beyond the lights of the wedding tent our granddaughter had lost her shoe. She cried in her mother's arms to let us know it was past her bed time. "I think there's a flashlight in my bag in the car," Mary said. The car was 200 yards away and down a hill that would have to be reclimbed.

"I'll get one," I said gallantly but didn't run down the hill. Instead I downloaded the first free flashlight app I could find onto my Droid X. Took about 30 seconds. Found the shoe about a minute later in the bright white light from the screen. Flashlights use to be a separate physical thing. Now there's an app for that.

"It's cool to download a flashlight from cyberspace," I opined.

"Come on Dad," my daughter said; "we've got to get Lily to bed."

Paperless airplanes

Following the rule that the more expensive the hotel room the more extras you will be scalped for, the place wanted $1.25/page to print the six boarding passes we needed to get home,. Didn't want to wait to get to the airport to checkin and print the boarding passes because United's reservation system has been doing strange thinks lately and best to know early if your reservation is screwed up. No worry, though; all three airports we would board at (LIH, SFO, ORD) are equipped to scan your boarding pass from the screen of your phone.

What happens is that the airline sends you an email which has links to each leg of your flight. Click on the link and a boarding pass, which is both human and machine readable, shows up in your browser. Both the TSA screeners and the gate agents have devices to read the boarding info from the screen. You need to be able both to get email on your phone and access the web with a browser to make this procedure work. No problem on either my Droid or Mary's iPhone.

Other stuff

Posted last week on how a smartphone can be a business card and bar code scanner. Everyone knows you can use your phone as a camera; the Android phones with free access to Google maps are particularly good for navigation. Obviously your contacts and calendar are on your phone. So there are a lot of other devices you don't have to carry around.

On the other hand, I always bring two ways to charge my Droid in a car or from the wall and will probably buy something with extra stored electricity to carry around. Wouldn't want to be left in the dark.

Related posts:

Business Card with QR Code

Droid Setup – Day 1 of My Re-Retirement

Droid, Gmail, gSyncit, iPhone, Outlook, Mary and Me

Navigating on My Droid

Swyping from my Droid – The Supplement

Business Card with QR Code

That funny black and white pattern on the top of my new business card is called a QR (Quick Retrieval) code. Think of it as a two dimensional successor to barcodes; naturally it can hold much more information than an old fashioned linear barcode. In this case my contact information is encoded in there. If you read it with one of the many QR reader applications which are available for smartphones, it will resolve into a vCard, which can then be stored directly into an address book. After you have my address in your address book, you can throw the card away – or give it back so I can use it again.

QR codes are a link between the print and online worlds. You see them more and more often in magazines. When they appear in an ad or as part of a news story, they contain a URL which both takes you directly to a relevant web page and tells the owner of the web site what publication sent you. A QR code can also contain a phone number and even a text message to send to the phone number. In fact any short text can be encoded this way.

QR codes can also be the link between a computer screen and a smartphone. I put my vCard QR code at the bottom of my email signature so that someone can scan either the printed or onscreen version of a message from me and capture my address information. From now on I'll put it on PowerPoint presentations when I want the audience to be able to contact me and they'll be able to point their phones at it instead of trying to write down address information or the URL of the presentation.

I use a free application called Barcode Scanner on my Droid X to read QR codes. When you run it, it uses the Droid's camera to see the code you want to scan. As soon as it recognizes a code in its viewer, it captures it and decodes it. The application is also able to read traditional barcodes -something you may want to do in a store before buying so that your phone can get some competitive prices on the same item. The documentation says that Barcode Scanner can be used to make QR codes but I haven't tried that.

goqr.me is a free site I used to make my QR code. Worked fine. It has a link to zazzle.com, which, for a price, will put the QR code on business cards, t-shirts, coffee mugs or whatever. You can also download your free code and paste it into your own documents or send it as a picture file to whoever makes your business cards or t-shirts.

Now you know what I was doing today in nerdville.

Related posts:

Droid Setup – Day 1 of My Re-Retirement

Droid, Gmail, gSyncit, iPhone, Outlook, Mary and Me

Navigating on My Droid

Swyping from my Droid – The Supplement

The Empress’ New iPad

Update: I was sloppy in my debugging and wrong to blame Safari on the iPad for problems we had viewing web pages on that device in my post below. Although iPad, as is well known, doesn't support Flash, the problems I was seeing were caused by settings on the two WiFi routers I use; these settings don't seem to affect other devices. However, the problems are well known and the fixes simple unless you own a very old router. Details for those who may have a problem with broken web pages on an iPad – other than when trying to view Flash content – are at I Was Wrong and Sloppy to Blame Safari on the iPad for Viewing Problems.

Our friends love and use their iPads – even former applephobes. Mary was an early iPhone adopter and is still enthusiastic about it; so it made sense to get her an iPad 2 for her birthday. Got one with lots of memory, WiFi, but no cellular connection because I figure we can use my MiFi device to create a hotspot wherever we need one in the US and can rent a similar device when we travel abroad. Didn't want yet one more wireless data account, either.

Here in Nerdland birthday presents come with tech support. Yesterday it rained so I spent all day – literally – setting up the iPad to do the things Mary wants it to do. The big disappointment so far, however, is the Safari browser. Surfing, to use the right technical term, sucks.

It shouldn't be that way. The screen is beautiful and crisp and big enough to display most web pages; the touch gestures we learned on iPhone and Droid work as they should. But too many websites are flat out broken when viewed with Safari. Some, like sears.com won't even load (I spent an hour looking for problems with my home WiFi); others, like NYTimes.com, load in an ugly and degraded way. These same websites work much better on an iPhone or Droid than they do on an iPad. I know why now and it's all Steve Jobs' fault. added later: commenters and others report that they are not having the same problems I am with these two sites. Am trying to track down what makes the difference. Doesn't effect whether Safari supports Flash - it doesn't - and the arguments pro or con; but I may have chosen bad examples.

Why browsing is broken with iPad Safari

Many websites use a technology called Flash, which comes from Adobe, for animation and general bling. To put it mildly, Steve Jobs doesn't like Flash and has refused to support it on either the iPhone or the iPad. He blogged a diatribe against Flash when the iPad was released and listed lack of openness (he should talk!); poor reliability, security, and performance; drain on batteries; lack of touch support; and "most important":

"We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. If developers grow dependent on third party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers."

Steve, of course, would rather developers were dependent only on Apple for new features. He's always been that way. But I digress.

It was no big deal that the iPhone didn't support Flash because no other phone-based browser did at the time. Those site owners who wanted their content to be browseable on phones developed special versions of their sites laid out to display correctly on a small screen and with no Flash dependency. Often, but not always, a professional site will detect what kind of device you are using to access it and automatically direct you to either the mobile or desktop version of each page. Some, but not all sites, let you override this selection.

But all of a sudden there's the iPad. Like the iPhone, it doesn't support Flash. Unlike the iPhone, it has a nice big screen. So does a website serve up the mobile version of its pages to the iPad (remember, it's the web server and not your browser which decides what format to send) and lose the benefit of the big screen? Or does it send the beautifully designed full page version – only to have any imbedded Flash break and make the page ugly or even inaccessible. Different website owners have taken different approaches; some treat Safari on an iPad as if it were on an iPhone; others treat it as if it were on a PC or Mac. On far too many websites, the result is a terrible user experience.

That's why browsing is broken for so many sites using Safari on the iPad.

But there's an app for that

Many site owners who want to take full advantage of the iPhone and iPad have developed downloadable apps which display their content outside the context of a browser and get their bling without Flash. Apple itself distributes a YouTube app on iPad because YouTube, which uses Flash, won't work inside the Safari browser and the iPad market would be restricted without YouTube support.

Some apps are quite elegant – but this is déjà vu all over again. We're back to the early days of online networks in which every major content provider and website distributed an application which you ran to get access to their content. You didn't get the instant gratification of just being able to navigate to a page for the first time and immediately interact with it. You had to keep all the apps uptodate. Then came browsers and broadband; each webpage can do the equivalent of downloading the latest version of its "app" whenever you access it; Flash is part of the process that many sites use for this purpose. Partly because Flash isn't supported in Safari on iPads and iPhones, we're back to downloading and constantly uploading specific apps for specific content, good for app developers – and apparently for Apple - but bad for the rest of us. At the ridiculous extreme, every website would require its own app and we'd have to learn how to use them all.

Droid is a fly in Apple's ointment.

It does support Flash despite all the drawbacks Steve lists; this makes a Droid phone better for web-browsing than an iPhone. It presumably means that Droid tablets are better for web browsing than the iPad. I don't have a DroidPad but glad to have comments from anyone who does.

Fred Wilson wrote:

"I know where I personally come out in this fight. I much prefer a "web-centric handheld world" to a "proprietary app centric universe". And that's why I carry a Google phone instead of an iPhone. For me, it's a political statement as much as anything else.

"Someday soon, I'll be reading a blog on my Google phone and I'll come upon a video in a Flash player and I'll be able to hit play and watch it on my phone. That's apparently not going to happen in Apple's "proprietary app centric universe". "

I agree and I have a Droid but I'm still puzzled. When I search online, the only major complaints I see about Safari on iPad are that some sites serve it their tiny mobile screens (probably because there's Flash in the big screens). I don't see complaints about Safari being unable to load some sites as happened to us (a survey of two friends elicited one similar experience to ours and one "Safari's perfect"). People really love their iPads and do carry them instead of computers. Is web browsing less important than I think? Am I just looking at an unrepresentative set of sites that happen to break? Is the iPad so good at other things through its apps that the limitations on browsing don't matter? Or does the empress' iPad really need Flashier clothes?

Related posts:

Why did Mary's AT&T iPhone Ask To Use Verizon?

Keeping a Moving Boatload of Devices Online

Mary Meets Steve Jobs – Why the Mac?

Droid Setup – Day 1 of My Re-Retirement

Pulse Interviews Me on MSFT Skype Deal

Got a Facebook message this morning asking me to appear on the Pulse in 30 minutes to discuss Microsoft and Skype. Quickly put a shirt on and did the interview, appropriately, on Skype running on my Windows 7 PC.

 

You can see the video here if it doesn't appear above.

A couple of other views on the deal:

Om Malik brings up interesting possibilities with Kinect + Skype = Video Calling Magic and also gives a more traditional view Why Microsoft is Buying Skype for $8.5 Billion.

Galeal Zino says Skype may have to swallow Microsoft for this to succeed. He may be right.

Verizon Wireless Aims Salvo at Residential Landline Market

The banner in the window of the Verizon Wireless (VZW) store in Montpelier was a declaration of war on local landline providers. "Save on your home phone service," it said; "Unlimited [nb. US] calling for $19.99/month." This is particularly interesting here in Northern New England where Verizon (55% owner of VZW) sold its landline business to FairPoint Communications in 2007 after years of underinvestment in infrastructure. FairPoint went bankrupt not too long afterwards and has since reemerged; now they and other local landline carriers face a very serious threat to their already shrinking landline business from VZW. FairPoint charges $58.99/month for unlimited US calling in Vermont and that price does not include features like voice mail, which are part of the VZW Home Phone Connect service. (You actually pay more than the headline price monthly for both plans once the "additional charges" are added on). You can keep your existing landline number if you switch.

One reason you wouldn't switch your service is if you don't get a good VZW signal at your house. The service works through your existing home phones – not through mobile phones – but it connects from your house to the world over Verizon's cellular network. VZW supplies a device into which you plug your existing phones; the device is free with a two year contract or $129.99 with month-to-month service. If you have only a single phone (but who has that?), you would just plug it into the device. If you have cordless phones, you plug the base station into the device. If you have multiple phones connected with internal wiring, you either put the device at the point where your existing landline service enters the house or plug it into an unused jack after disconnecting your landline service. This is exactly the way that VoIP service like Vonage utilize your home phones.

VZW is very serious about having a successful competitor to landlines. The device has a battery so that, like existing landline services, it can survive a lengthy power outage. It has a GPS in it to assure that 911 calls have accurate location information (so long as the device is near a window). In fact some users have discovered an interesting use for the device given these two features – they take it with them when they go on vacation or even out in a boat. As long as there is a phone plugged into it and you have a VZW signal, you are taking your home phone service including inbound and outbound calling with you. I doubt if the device will switch from cell tower to cell tower while you move, though.

There are limitations. This from the VZW site: "Home Phone Connect is not compatible with home security systems, fax machines, dial-up or DSL internet service, DVR services, medical alert services (e.g. Life Alert), or credit card machines." It does work with answering machines and most autodialers. But note, if you are getting DSL from your local landline provider, you may have to continue to buy at least their minimum phone plan in order to keep your DSL. For example, I pay FairPoint for $13.15/month plus another $7 .71 in local charges for this part of my service. So this would erode but not eliminate your savings if you are switching from FairPoint unlimited to VZW unlimited.

Note also that you can get VoIP service from Vonage and other at a lower price than VZW Home Connect assuming that you have reasonably good Internet access (not satellite!). AT&T also offers a device which lets you make unlimited US calls from your cell phone when you're at home; that service also costs $19.99/month and connects to the Internet over your existing Internet connection. But the VZW service, as they proudly promote, doesn't require an Internet connection.

VZW is also going after the low end of the market and making the service attractive to those who already do the bulk of their calling on VZW cellphones. You can just add the device as an extra line to your existing Family Share Plan for $9.99/month plus "other charges". This does not give you unlimited calling but would be very useful for mainly receiving calls or as a very cheap way for children who aren't ready for their own cell phones to have the convenience of home phones at little incremental monthly cost.

Related posts:

AT&T "Freeloading" on ISP Pipes

No More Landlines – Comm Forecast #1

What Does Verizon Selling Northern New England Landlines Mean?

AT&T and Verizon Wireless: Opposite Strategies to Win Landline Business

DVR Dies; Wii and Netflix to the Rescue

"If rebooting doesn't work, call customer service" is what the diagnostic on the blue screen says. Rebooting doesn't revive the DVR, so I call. Mary and I have already settled into the room with the big screen TV and the exhaust fan and lit our cigars to catch the last episode of the first season of Damages.

"Please tell me the reason for your call?" the robot asks.

"Diagnostics code 14-143," I say.

"The movie has not begun yet," says the bot. "Would you like to order now?"

"That's not what I called about," I say. "The DVR is not working."

"Would you like to order now?" the bot asks implacably.

I hit zero on the key pad.

"I don't understand your reply. Would you like to order now?"

I hit zero ten more times punctuated by profanities directed at the bot. One behavior or the other gets me a live agent, who, after determining that I am not having a nice day, transfers me to tech support. Bottom line, after tech support also determines that I am not having a nice day: the DVR is fried; a new one will be sent to me at no charge with a return mailer for the old one. No, there isn't any way to recover the saved content on the DVR's disk. Have a nice day.

Wonder if the DVR knows I'm working through a check list for taking down my dish? Wanted to reject me before I reject it?

We know we can download the missing Damages from Amazon but don't want to wait for that. We already lit our cigars. Besides, I still haven't gotten the HDMI to DVI adapter I need to make my PC work well with the HDTV.

But the Wii Mary uses for exercise is already plugged into the TV. We remember that daughter Kate once told us we could watch Netflix on the Wii. Have been meaning to try that. Sure enough, the Wii has a Netflix channel, which apparently popped up during an upgrade. When we select it, we get a code that we have to enter into Netflix on a PC to prove that the Wii is entitled to stream from our account. The Wii tells us that it can't show us the movie we select because "our account isn't current". Rebooting the Netflix channel on the Wii takes care of that and a queue of movies we've ordered from Netflix but not yet received via snail mail is available for streaming.

We still have slow DSL (on our checklist for upgrade); but the streaming didn't work badly. The Wii built up a buffer before starting to show us anything. There were three or four pauses during the movie to rebuild the buffer when our connection apparently hadn't delivered the content as fast as we were consuming it; but they were no longer than commercial breaks and less annoying. An onscreen progress meter reassured us that something hadn't just frozen. Stop and backspace with the Wii remote controller worked as expected.

Naturally we have now downgraded our $16.99/month 2 DVDs out at a time plan from Netflix to $7.99 "Watch Instantly Unlimited". In our case, since we don't watch more than a couple of videos per month, Netflix is probably losing net revenue. With heavy watchers, Netflix saves a bundle by having them move to streaming only.

We can also download and stream videos from Amazon on an ala carte basis. If Amazon ends up with a better selection of the movies we want than Netflix or is better at suggesting to us what we might want to watch, we may cancel Netflix altogether. Amazon can't currently be streamed to Wii; on the other hand Amazon supports both download and streaming while Netflix is streaming only. We don't usually watch movies more than once, but downloading is helpful to make sure there are no annoying pauses while you watch and in case you want to watch offline, on a plane for example.

One obstacle to cutting the cable or taking down the dish is the profusion of alternative in home entertainment sources and, so far, the need to use several sources to get all the content you want and to learn how to use each source. Cable and satellite have the advantage of one stop shopping. We didn't try Amazon Instant Video until we forgot to record episodes of a show we wanted to see and need a way to get them back; we didn't try Netflix on Wii until the DVR died. But cable and satellite companies are suffering from record numbers of defections and Netflix, according to the Huffington Post, has become the largest source of peak evening traffic on the Internet. Clearly it's gone beyond just we nerds switching to Internet-delivered content.

Related posts:

Cutting the Cord; Dismounting the Dish

 

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