June 16, 2021

Another Free Way to Tell if Starlink Broadband Will Work at Your Location

Also a good way to find out where you want to move your dish if you have problems.

StarlinkglobeIf you don’t have cable or fiber to your home and you don’t think you’ll be getting either one of them soon, Starlink from SpaceX may be your next best option. Starlink uses low earth orbit satellites (LEOs) which don’t have the latency problems which make the previous generation of satellite service from Hughes and others unusable for today’s essentials like Zoom. Starlink is plenty good for a family with multiple people learning from home, working from home, and streaming videos.

But if you’re in the northern hemisphere, Starlink needs a view of the northern sky; in the southern hemisphere it looks south. Currently, to provide service without interruption, it needs to see a swath of northern sky about 100 degrees wide and from 25 degrees to almost 90 degrees above the horizon. It is very sensitive to even thin tree limbs which block part of this view. Although the dish itself only moves as part of setup, it uses electronic tracking beams which lock on to satellites as they zip past in the swath of sky it can look at. Zip is not an exaggeration. The satellites circle the earth every ninety minutes; the satellite serving you now will be serving someone in South Africa 45 minutes from now.

The snapshot above is captured from the website https://satellitemap.space/# which projects the positions of Starlink satellites in real time.  Red ones are in the night sky; streaks are newly launched satellites not yet moved into place.  

Zooming in on the web picture gives you a picture like the one below. To be useful, you want to set up your house instead of mine as the green dot.

My house starlink

The five red lines going roughly north from my house show that, right this minute, any one of six satellites could be providing me with service. It’s anyone’s guess which one my dish is actually tracking. If you were looking at the real website, you’d see the white dots and the lines move. The two rows of white text associated with each satellite are the two most important. elev (elevation) is many degrees above the horizon the satellite appears from my house. Az (azimuth) is the direction from my house to the satellite. Notice there is no red line from my dish to the STARLINK-1139 at the far left; it hasn’t yet entered the dish’s field of view. Similarly STARLINK-2360 in the lower right is invisible to the dish.

If you stare at the moving display long enough (it is addictive), you’ll get a pretty good idea of whether Starlink is going to work for you. If there is any significant amount of time when there are no satellites eligible to serve your house, Starlink probably won’t take an order from you. There are parts of the world including the US which are not yet well-covered even though there are already about 1400 satellites launched. If there is nowhere you can put the dish where the arc swept by the red lines is always visible from 25 degrees above the horizon to almost straight up, then you are not currently a good candidate for Starlink. If you already have Starlink and the app is showing you that there are interference problems, the moving chart will help you pinpoint them and find a better location for the dush.

BTW, this cool website is not from Starlink or endorsed by Starlink; it doesn’t do tracking cookies; it doesn’t have ads; and it’s free. Good programmers like to do this kind of stuff.

Unfortunately, even if Starlink looks like a good fit, there is a backlog and you probably won’t get the equipment for three to six months after your order. SpaceX is gating deliveries to protect service quality; capacity is increased by the launch of about 60 new satellites each month and by adding new ground stations to bring the signal back to earth like the ones in Beekman, NY (active) and Lunenburg, VT (not yet active) in the picture above. There are also areas where Starlink service is simply not available yet pending a critical mass of orders in the area. You order at http://www.starlink.com with a refundable $99 deposit; but it is possible your order will be not be taken for one of the reasons listed. When your order is ready for shipment, you’ll be billed for the remainder of the $499 equipment charge plus taxes and shipping. Service is then $99/month; no contract and no data caps. You can return the equipment for 30 days for any reason or no reason.

If you like numbers, here are my measurements of Starlink performance: latency (roughly the time between when you click on something and you get a response from some server somewhere) is usually between 35-50 milliseconds, plenty fast. Download speed varies but is usually between 150 and 250 Megabits per seconds (Mbps) and upload between 15 and 35Mbps lately.

You can learn how to use the free app to check for obstacles before ordering at: How to Find Out Free If Starlink Will Work at Your House.

Related posts are at:

Vermont Starlink FAQs

Starlink or Your Local WISP for Broadband Service

Starlink Broadband Access: Game-Changer for Rural Broadband

 

June 10, 2021

Amazon Sidewalk Should be Kicked to the Curb

It may already be sharing your Internet connection AND your data.

Amazon Sidewalk went live in millions of homes today, June 9. If you have a late model Echo or an Amazon Ring device, Sidewalk can now use your internet connection for other people’s data and send your data through other people’s internet connections unless you already knew about this intrusion and turned it off.

Somehow none of the copious emails I get from Amazon mentioned this.

What is Sidewalk?

Sidewalk is a clever technology which has quietly been built into Echo devices since 2018 and into all Ring devices. Part of it is a radio which uses neither Bluetooth nor WiFi but can communicate with similar radios up to a half mile away. A similar technology is used in smart electric meters.

The rest is technology which uses the WiFi connection you set up for your Amazon device to send data the radio has received from your neighbors and to send some of your data to your neighbors for transmission over their internet connections.  Sidewalk is a mesh network of connected devices which can use any internet connection in the mesh for any device in the mesh. For technical reasons, it can currently only transfer relatively small amounts of data.

A list of devices with Sidewalk enabled is here as well as information on becoming a Sidewalk developer.

Why is Sidewalk?

An article in The Washington Post quotes an email from Manolo Arana, Amazon’s general manager of Sidewalk:

“We live in an increasingly connected world where customers want their devices to stay connected. We built Sidewalk to improve customers’ experiences with their devices and to benefit their communities.”

Reasons we would want Sidewalk, he said, include continuing to receive motion alerts from Ring security cameras when they lose WiFi or extending the range of smart lights. Later this month, Amazon is also adding Bluetooth lost-item tracker Tile and smart lock maker Level to the Sidewalk network. And it is partnering with CareBand, a maker of wearable sensors for people with dementia, on a pilot test including indoor and outdoor tracking and a help button.

(BTW, kudos to The Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, but recommends turning Sidewalk off).

At its best, Sidewalk is backup for your security system if your own or a neighbor’s Internet connection goes down. It lets Tiles work outside the range of Bluetooth and lets other devices work outside the range of your WiFi. It does extend the internet of things and can be an alternative to using expensive cellular connections for devices with small data requirements.

What’s wrong with Sidewalk?

  1. Security. Even though Amazon has a good record in avoiding cyber-attacks (so far) and security people more knowledgeable than me say the Sidewalk encryption scheme is robust, anything that can be hacked will be hacked. Amazon says Sidewalk will be built into 3d party devices; each one of them is a potential Trojan Horse. Do you want data from your security system on an unmanaged mesh network? Amazon didn’t ask you before turning the service on.
  2. Bandwidth sharing. If there are data caps on your home internet connection or it is some form of miserable DSL with little bandwidth to spare, do you want to use some of that bandwidth to support your neighbors’ devices? Amazon didn’t ask you before turning the service on.
  3. Possible violations of your ISP’s terms of service. Some ISPs are quoted as saying that we signed agreements that we would only use our connections for our own data, not that of our neighbors. You probably didn’t read the terms of service (ToS) any more closely than I did. I don’t take this one too seriously. If I forward an email or upload a big file that someone gave me on a thumb drive, am I violating the ToS? But Amazon didn’t ask if I wanted to fight with my ISP.
  4. Amazon didn’t ask before turning the service on! It’s obvious why: for the mesh to work, many homes must have it enabled. Most people wouldn’t bother to enable it, especially since there may not be an immediate benefit to them. Communication services need critical mass. Amazon has a critical mass of devices installed. It didn’t want to give that advantage away, so it just turned the service on without either asking or even a massive publicity campaign about benefits and possible drawbacks and how to opt out.

How do I turn Sidewalk off? (from the NYTImes which likes it but thinks it should’ve been optin)

Echo device owners, open your Alexa app on your smartphone.

  1. Look for the sandwich menu (three lines), labeled More, at the bottom right of the dashboard and tap it.
  2. Select Settings.
  3. Select Account Settings.
  4. Select Amazon Sidewalk. Use the slider to choose Disabled.

Ring device owners should follow these instructions.

  1. Open the Ring app.
  2. Go to the sandwich menu (three lines) in the upper left of the dashboard.
  3. Select Control Center.
  4. Select Amazon Sidewalk. Use the slider to choose Disabled.
  5. When prompted, tap Confirm to indicate that you wish to disable Sidewalk.

Note: If your Alexa is too old to have Sidewalk radios, you won’t see the Sidewalk option in the app.

June 02, 2021

Should Vaccination be Required for Medical Professionals?

“Thank you [name deleted] for your thoughtful post. Although I disagree with you, I 100% support YOUR right to choose to wear a mask and to receive the COVID-19 shot if you so desire. That said, there are many of us who choose not to receive any of the COVID-19 shots nor wear masks in situations where it is not required.” - Bradley Rauch, Stowe Chiropractic/Vermont Functional Neurology  in Stowe Front Porch Forum.

The woman whose name I redacted said that, although she is fully vaccinated, she intends to keep wearing a mask in town and in stores and that she suspects that those who have refused to get vaccinated are also refusing to wear masks.

Dr. Rauch has every right to express his opinion about the Covid-19 vaccine just as he has campaigned against childhood vaccination. He is doing us a favor by letting us know both that his medical judgment is faulty and that it is riskier to be treated by him than by vaccinated professionals.

Should Dr.Rauch be allowed to practice medicine?

I don’t think so. Early in the pandemic medical professionals were given preference for vaccination both in recognition of the risks they were taking and the danger that they would become super-spreaders. Doctors, nurses, and other medical staff remain more likely to get infected than others because they come in contact with sick people and are more likely to spread infection than others because sick patients are vulnerable.

Covid vaccination should be a requirement for those in health care who have patient contact. That requirement would mean that Dr, Rauch would not be allowed to practice unless and until he is vaccinated.

I’m NOT saying that Rauch should be barred from practice because he speaks against vaccination; he has a right to free speech even if that speech is unpopular. He and other medical professionals who refuse vaccination should be barred from practice because their refusal to be vaccinated makes them a danger to their patients.

See also: Perpetrator of Fraudulent Vaccine Scare Speaking in Stowe

May 24, 2021

Unmasked – Now It’s Up to Us

We wore masks to protect other people because they had no way to protect themselves – especially those whose jobs serving us made them vulnerable. Now almost all 12s and up can protect themselves with a vaccination. We are now responsible, again, for own safety. That’s a good thing.

Just saw the first sign at a supermarket which said “You must wear a mask if you’re not vaccinated [emphasis mine]”. Do I think everyone going maskless was vaccinated? No, there’s an unfortunate selfish correlation between those who refused to wear masks and those who refuse to get vaccinated. Am I going to wear a mask because of the unmasked unvaccinated? No. I’m vaccinated. I’m no more likely to spread Covid than all the other diseases in the world, most of which I’m not vaccinated against.

Right now the unvaccinated are taking a risk with their own lives. Unfairly the final vaccine holdouts will be parasites on the partial herd immunity achieved by the rest of us getting vaccinated and will be danger to those who can’t get vaccinated or have weak immune systems and provide a breeding ground for new variants which could be vaccine resistant. We may still need to make vaccination compulsory.

I was glad to wear a mask when it was needed. Intend to make a habit of masking up if I go out with sniffles in the future. It was absurd that masks became a political symbol, although less than complete candor from the CDC and yes, even from Dr. Fauci, as well as Trumpian mask-scorn had something to do with that. In hindsight, the evidence that masks were unneeded outdoors should have been released earlier and probably would have increased compliance indoors. Continuing to wear a mask after vaccination or outdoors is like keeping a Trump 2020 sticker on your car – not that the same people do both.

I’m glad to see smiles again.

May 10, 2021

Broadband Equity Isn’t Happening in Vermont This Year

Why did Progressive Senator Pearson lead the opposition?

You’d think Progressives would be all in for a plan to use a fraction of federal Rescue funds to assure that every Vermont family regardless of income or location had a chance to get connected immediately to the broadband service they need to participate in the post-pandemic world. You’d be wrong!

You’d think a plan to provide outreach, technical help, training, and subsidies when required to families whose children have to go to the McD parking lot to do their homework and who have to go to the emergency room rather than see a teledoc would sail through a legislature with a huge Democrat majority despite conservative concern that a temporary subsidy program would become permanent. You’d be wrong!

You’d think that the administration of Phil Scott, which has done a great job of leading the state through the pandemic, would seize the opportunity to lead a crucial aspect of pandemic recovery. You’d be wrong! The administration was largely AWOL on this issue.

Why is the Vermont General Assembly on the verge of allocating $150 million of Rescue funds to yet-to-be-defined broadband construction projects which, at best, won’t be completed for five years, but refusing to allocate even $5 million to low-income Vermonters who could be brought online immediately? Why are they refusing to require that projects built with state and federal funds include low-income programs so that they can be accessible by all? Frankly, I don’t know.

Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) and Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) led the opposition in the Senate Finance Committee to a proposal called the “Digital Equity and Affordability Program” introduced by Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin), which included a Broadband Corps to help an estimated 50,000+ eligible families find providers they can connect to immediately and get access to existing and new subsidies. According to VT Digger,

“By helping private providers offer subsidized service, the state would divert customers away from the CUDS [Communications Union Districts] and toward the companies that historically have avoided building out in rural areas, Pearson said.

“’The problem is that that could easily undermine the CUD model, which is essential if we’re going to get broadband to the outskirts, to the very far end of the dirt road, and you can’t undermine their business model, so it’s a real balance,’ Pearson said.”

The CUDs were established by the legislature several years ago as vehicles for municipal cooperation to provide broadband access in parts of Vermont which lack usable internet because it has been unprofitable to serve them with traditional technology. The private sector had not solved this problem. The idea was that the CUDs would borrow money at favorable municipal rates and, since they had no shareholders to satisfy, would be able to provide service and repay their loans. The model was EC Fiber, which already provides fiber service in rural parts of 23 towns in Vermont.

The CUDs were preparing plans and meant to follow EC Fiber’s lead and borrow money commercially. But, all of a sudden, we have a deluge of federal funds from CARES and ARPA legislation. There is probably more to come from the Biden infrastructure proposal. The Governor proposed $250 million and the legislature is currently allocating $150 million largely to finance the long-delayed buildout; both advocate funneling almost all of the money through the CUDs.

Whether it is wise to immediately commit all the marbles to well-meaning volunteer organizations with no track record and little relevant expertise is another subject for another post. Let’s assume for now that CUDs are the way to go for broadband buildout and go back to Sen. Pearson’s absurd claim that helping people get online now with ISPs already serving their neighborhood will undermine the “business” plan of the CUDs.

About 60% of Vermont families, including most in Pearson’s Chittenden County, live in areas served by Comcast which already has a $10/month low-income plan (50Mbps down, 5Mbps up, no data cap) with no signup charges and free equipment. No subsidy money would have gone through these families to Comcast under Brock’s proposal but the Broadband Corp would have encouraged and helped eligible families to sign up for it. Since these areas are certainly not “unserved”, they are not in need of CUD buildout. A state-sponsored survey shows that only 10% of eligible families take advantage of this program. Hard to see how getting these families online now at an affordable price hurts the CUDs but apparently Pearson thinks it would.

Another 25% of Vermont families live in areas where there is adequate broadband service but it is too expensive for some. This includes the territory served by EC Fiber which costs $140 to install and $72/month for minimum acceptable service. This area is also served by wireless ISPs, small telcos and cable companies. Under Brock’s proposal installation and equipment charges and all but $25 of monthly charges would have been subsidized for a limited time. Families in these areas would have been able to get online with one of the providers before the next school year begins.

The CUDs do intend to overbuild at least the parts of this area where there is not fiber available to each residence. Even though the need is not desperate in these areas, the CUDs say, anything but fiber is unacceptable and they need the income from these areas to subsidize their buildout to even more thinly served areas. EC Fiber is in some of this area and would benefit from new signups with this subsidy; they have no formal low-income program of their own although they have been generous on an informal basis. The rest of the CUDs offer no service today and so families who sign up in “their territories” would be signing up with Vermont companies like Cloud Alliance, Stowe Cable, and GlobalNet.

Sen. Pearson’s stated fear is that these customers won’t switch to CUD service when and if it’s available. Better to leave them without service, he says, than risk hurting the business plans of the CUDs. On WCAX he said “You’re undermining their ability to get to the last house. You’re effectively subsidizing these private companies to cherry-pick customers along the way.” Cherry picking?? EC Fiber has no formal affordable plan. Only about 35% of the families to whom their service is physically available actually buy it – presumably affordability is an issue for many of them. CUD testimony before the legislature (which may not be representative of all CUDs) was that, even with the flood of federal capital, CUDs will not be able to offer low-income plans. The families Sen. Brock proposed giving subsidies to can’t possibly be part of the CUD business plan since the CUDs say they can’t offer them service they can afford. Nothing in this subsidy plan would have hurt the CUDs ability to sell to those who can afford their service.

The final 15% of Vermont families live where there is no traditional broadband access good enough for the post-pandemic families. The CUDs are frank that they can’t possibly reach the end of these roads for five more years. Affluent Vermonters (and new urban refugees) in remote areas are ordering service from Starlink, the first of a new generation of low earth orbit satellite (LEOS) service providers who provide more than adequate service optimized for remote areas. 5G cell service will probably also be available in part of these areas soon. In this case Sen. Pearson is saying that low-income people should patiently wait five years for CUD service, which they probably won’t be able to afford when it gets to them. The statement is simply elitist and inhumane. It’s also economic nonsense. Even affluent Vermonters choosing Starlink are no threat to the CUDs, assuming the CUDs can offer them a better product or a better service when they finally reach them. Starlink has no contract commitment so customers are free to switch.

It is now all but certain that the legislature will deliberately refuse the opportunity to help unconnected low-income Vermont families thrive in a post-pandemic world which requires the ability to work from home, study from home, and take advantage of telemedicine. It’s ironic as well as tragic that this failure is based on a perceived need to advance the “business plan” of non-profits formed to remedy the failure of for-profit companies to provide broadband to the unserved.

[Bitterness alert: Mary and I have been working on an effort called Broadband Equity NOW! to convince the executive and legislative branches to seize this unique opportunity to close the broadband gap in Vermont immediately with short-term measures and set the stage for long-term affordability. We had lots of help from many caring people of all political persuasions and are disappointed that we failed and that the broadband gap, instead of being bridged, is growing into a broadband gulch.  We are also appalled that opponents of these proposals claimed that we were funded by Elon Musk (founder of Starlink) or some other commercial entity.]

May 06, 2021

General Assembly Refusing to Spend Any RESCUE Money on Broadband Affordabilty

More today on WDEV

The Vermont General Assembly is on the verge of squandering an enormous opportunity to get all Vermonters regardless of location or income online now with the high quality broadband they need to thrive in the post-pandemic world. The greatest obstacle to a family accessing adequate broadband in Vermont is affordability. So far the legislature has declined to address either short or long term affordability while allocating $150 million of federal Rescue money for broadband buildout. There are literally only a few days left for the legislature to remedy this grave mistake.

I'll be on WDEV (96.1 FM, 550 AM) in VT with Bill Sayre at 11AM today (May 6, 2021) discussing this impending failure by our state government and the last chances to remedy it. Streaming at https://wdevradio.com/stream/. It's a callin so you can question and opine as well.

May 03, 2021

More Unlimited Data is an Oxymoron

It started with having to upgrade my “unlimited” plan to increase the data limit. We’re on the road, and the WiFi at Wisconsin State Fair RV Park is almost but not quite good enough for serious Zooms (about 1.5 Mbps up and down with phenomenally good latency). Zooming using my Verizon Wireless (VZW) MiFi hotspot is high quality but burns many precious bits.

I only wanted to increase the “unlimited” limits for the hotspot but the VZW website wouldn’t do that without also putting our phones, which aren’t using too much data, on new, more expensive plans for a total $40/mo increase. I clicked CHAT. The transcript below is verbatim, REALLY.

Verizon

Hey . I'm the Verizon Digital Assistant. Ask me a question! If I can't help, I can connect you with a live chat agent.

Please note that we may monitor or retain this chat.

You can also start with one of these popular topics:

    • View your bill
    • Make a payment
    • Manage my account
    • View data usage
    • View My Plan

Me I need to speak to an agent.

Verizon One moment, and I'll get someone who can help you.

We received your message and we'll connect you with the next available agent.

The estimated wait time is a minute or less. Please keep in mind in order to hold your place in the agent queue you will need to keep this chat window active otherwise your session could be ended.

Verizon Agent

Hi there! Welcome to Verizon messaging team. I am more than glad to assist you today. How may I help you?

Me I want more data for my mifi device but dont need more for the phones. how can I just select unlimited plus for that device and leave the others as is? 

Verizon Agent

Oh, thank you so much for reaching us about this. I'll be more than happy to assist you with that.

[ 5 min delay]

Verizon Agent

Allow me to pull up your account first so that I can assist you further and with whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?

Me Tom Evslin

Verizon Agent

Hi Tom, Very nice to meet you

[7 min]

Verizon Agent

I have now the account pulled up and currently checking on it with regard to your concern.

Verizon Agent

Tom, I do have here the best offer that you can choose. I highly suggest our Do More Unlimited [sic] Plan not for all of the device, it's just for the device you are using. We can go ahead and discuss it.

Me what r the details? Thank you

Verizon Agent

You are most welcome.

[10 min]

Verizon Agent

Let me send you a link for your reference so that you can check it more detailed.

Me ok

Verizon Agent

One moment

[8 min]

Verizon Agent

Thank you for your patience. I have tried to process to change a new plan for your request, However, it wont allow to continue the process since it prompt me to select the plan change to all of the lines associated. The good thing of that is you can pay more less of the charges that you are paying right now.

Me what will be the difference in monthly charges and in data allowance?

Verizon Agent

Great question. Let me check on it. [Like he/she/they didn’t think I’d ask]

[10 min]

Verizon Agent

Hi thank you for your patience. I will be sending you a sample qoute of the plan that i am referring to. To what email address I can send? 

Me: [redacted]

[5 min. good thing I’m multitasking too]

Verizon Agent

Thank you so much. one moment, I will be sending now.

Verizon Agent

Please let me know if you receive

Me: i did receive it. You told me it would be less. In fact it is $40 more. Nothing in what you sent me says what I am getting for that $40

Verizon Agent

Let me check another plan. One moment please.

[15 min]

Me this is a long moment. r u still there?

Icon

 

Not Delivered

No further communication from VZW. Not a happy camper, I did upgrade. When we get home, we’ll get a new carrier.

But their time is almost up.

1) I expect that I’ll at least be able to pay for zoomable wifi by the night in most places a year from now.

Tvdish2) Elon Musk promised that I’ll be able to take my Starlink dish with me by the end of the year like this camper is doing with his satellite TV.

Elon also implied there’ll even be a version (I’m sure it’ll be a new dish) that will work in trucks and RVs while in motion. I’m not going to need much cellular data.

April 29, 2021

Jailbreak

BetaBitVermont coated our rented RV in ice to prevent our departure. No way. We’ve been quarantined. We’re double vaxxed and timed out. We were outta there as soon as the RV extension thawed enough for it to retract. Did feel very bad about Ben, our faithful Covid dog; but he’s with our dog-person house sitter and has playdates lined up.

Crossing the NY State line was a big deal; haven’t left Vermont for 14 months. Driving an underpowered vehicle with small tires and rudimentary suspension takes getting used to.

Medriving

First night was too cold to put water in the RV so we stayed in a hotel; another 14-month first. Whoops; couldn’t sign on to Marriott wifi on my computer even though Mary could sign on with hers. Why? Because I took my own advice. Specified that my computer MUST always use the Cloudflare DNS specifically to protect myself against rogue DNS servers while travelling (this isn’t a nerd post so don’t worry if this sounds like gobbledygook). Turns out at least Marriott and probably other venues use their own DNS server to get you signed in. Had to undo my protection to go back on the road.

Second night Niagara, NY. Hooking up the water and electric only took five minutes to my delight. Furnace worked. The Falls themselves, which we’d only seen before from the air, were spectacular. We only wore our masks indoors and in crowds; most people did the same.

Marybridal

Travel for me has always been about communication ever since I used to take a wallplate off to connect my 1200 baud modem to the phone line. The WiFi at KOA (Campgrounds of America) was good enough for Zoom but email started bouncing back because various spam filters didn’t like the IP address of the RV park. Who knows what evil hackers parked here before us. Had to use my Verizon MiFi device to create a hotspot.

Cooking toast in the stove top set off the smoke detector even with fans on and the windows open; so I redeployed it to the sock drawer. Emptying the black water and grey water tanks into a foul pipe in the ground not as bad as I thought it might be. But still a few drips. Yuck (picture deleted).

It’s good to be back on the road.

April 21, 2021

Testimony Today on a Rescue Program for Vermont Families Who Can't Afford Broadband

The VT House Committee on Energy and Technology will be taking testimony on broadband subsidies today (4/21) starting a 9AM streamable live or later from https://www.youtube.com/.../UClq5iwB1tbE.../featured.
 
Their original broadband bill, H360, did not have subsidies but they may well be added in the Senate , and so I think the committee is wisely preparing itself on this subject. I'll be testifying in favor of emergency low-income subsidies to get all Vermont families across broadband gulch followed by a long-term program of requiring ISPs that accept Rescue funding for building networks to offer low-income plans on those networks.
 
This plan also includes a Broadband Corps, whose development is already underway, to make sure families know what service and aid is available to them, assure that they do get hooked up, and provide basic computer literacy.
 
My testimony will be probably start at around 10AM.

April 19, 2021

The Next Few Weeks Will Decide Whether Broadband is Affordable for All Vermonters

There is enormous opportunity; never has Vermont had to decide so quickly what to do with so much money. Never than in this almost post-pandemic world has there been such urgency to bring Vermonters stranded on the wrong side of broadband gulch the internet connections to the world they need. The urgency won’t go away but the opportunity can disappear if we don’t act quickly and decisively. Decisions that the legislature makes in the next few weeks will shape Vermont’s future for the decade to come.

There is general agreement that the vast bulk of federal dollars available for broadband should go to building long-term infrastructure – even while there is disagreement over who should build that infrastructure and what should be built where. There is time to solve those disagreements. There is also general agreement that it will take at least four or five years for this buildout to be completed. Those proposing to do the buildouts are not promising that the new services constructed will be affordable. In most rural parts of the state, usable broadband access is so expensive today that low-income people simply can’t afford it. Solving the access problem doesn’t solve the affordability problem.

There is serious disagreement over whether a small share of these Rescue dollars should be used for what seems like the short-term purpose of subsidizing low-income people so that they can access broadband NOW from their homes rather than from the parking lot of McDonalds. Shouldn’t all the dollars be spent, serious people ask, meeting our long-term needs? If we subsidize service now when we have federal dollars available, what happens to the subsidies and/or the state budget when the subsidies run out

Serious questions deserve a serious answer. These questions must be answered quickly because, if no funds are allocated to the problem of making broadband universally affordable before this legislature adjourns in May, far too many Vermonters will remain offline for at least another year. In fact, it’s worse than that because, if all the Rescue money is allocated to other projects, the opportunity to use it to close the broadband gap will be lost for the foreseeable future.

Answer 1: Closing the broadband gap is a one- time problem if, at the end of the gap closing, every Vermont family which needs to study from home, get medical attention at home, and work from home lives in a connected home. The health and economics and prospects of connected families will increase; unconnected families are trapped as if they’d been cut off by a flood. Before the pandemic we learned in school, went to the doctor’s office or emergency room for medical problems, and worked away from home. In the new world we must be able to do all these things from home as well. That need isn’t going away. We could even be locked down again by some vaccine-resistant variant or new disease.

Answer 2: Many of the dollars spent connecting homes to services already available will only have to be spent once. Connecting a home to the fiber already going by it is expensive; but it only needs to be done once. Other connections such as a dish for wireless will provide many years of connectivity before fiber is available at the end of the road.

Answer 3. The hundreds of millions in one-time construction dollars can be used to assure that subsidies are not needed into perpetuity by requiring that ISPs who build new networks with Rescue money offer low-income plans on these new networks immediately and eventually on any other networks they have in Vermont. This requirement will assure that, unlike previous projects done with public money, we don’t end up with networks which only some Vermonters can afford to use.

The Vermont Senate Finance Committee has H.360, the broadband bill, in its hands. They have listened to proposals on affordable access as well as many different plans for allocating the long-term construction dollars. It’s a good time to email the Senators below and urge them to assure that a small fraction of the dollars available be used to close the broadband affordability gap now. They will know why you are talking about if you reference the proposals made by Sen. Brock.

April 12, 2021

Federal Rescue Funds Can Immediately Rescue Low-Income Vermont Families from Broadband Gap

But the rescue needs your help!

IncarYou may have seen the TV footage last week of the Vermont high school student who has to use the WiFi in the McDonald’s parking lot to do her homework because she can’t get adequate broadband at home. What we don’t see are the people too sick to go to the doctor who can’t benefit from telemedicine because they can’t afford broadband or the people who’ve lost their jobs because they don’t have the Internet they need to work from home.

Governor Scott proposes spending $250 million of Rescue funds on connectivity infrastructure. “However,” as his proposal says: “the step of building the infrastructure alone does not address income inequality and digital literacy barriers to using the Internet.” The buildout he is proposing doesn’t reach many Vermont addresses for at least four years.

There are more low-income Vermonters who can’t afford access to very good broadband which is already available in their neighborhood than are living in the areas of the state shown as “unserved”. There is no aid for them in the Governor’s proposal or the House-passed broadband bill even though they could be connected almost immediately. Moreover, thanks to new technology like low earth orbit satellites (not SLOW like the old satellite services) and 5G, whose deployment is just beginning in Vermont, even families in the “unserved” areas can get connected – if they can afford the setup and monthly costs.

Vermont can give all low-income families regardless of location an opportunity to get online this year if we allocate $26.5 million, about 10% of the total connectivity funds, to an initiative , which is currently being considered by the Senate Finance Committee. Sen. Randy Brock, who supports the initiative, says: “…broadband is useless unless it is affordable, especially for those of limited means.” 

Your help is needed to encourage Senate Finance to add this initiative to the telecom bills it is considering this week!

There are four parts to the proposal which provide for affordable broadband now and in the future:

$6 million in initial service grants to help families who cannot afford one-time setup charges which can run as high as $600 for broadband service;

$15.5 million in subsidies to the neediest to assure that they don’t have to pay more than $25/month;

$5m for a Broadband Corps to help families find the best Internet service at their location, get the aid they qualify for, and actually get connected;

A requirement (also suggested by the Governor) that those who build new infrastructure with Rescue money be required to offer low-income plans so that, as the buildout happens, Internet will be affordable everywhere in Vermont without government subsidy.

Mary and I are working with a co-founded a short-term (we hope) non-profit called Broadband Equity NOW!, both to do preparatory work for the Broadband Corp so it can be “shovel ready” if approved by the legislature and to urge the legislature and the administration to use a small part of the flood of Rescue money to immediately rescue families from the broadband gap. After Irene, we built a lot of temporary bridges so people could get home; then we did the long-term construction to replace the broken infrastructure. The pandemic has left too many Vermont families stranded offline; we need to help get them online now.

I am asking your help: if you are a Vermonter, please email or call at least one of the members of Senate Finance listed below. A Broadband Corps is already in one of the bills they are considering. Please ask them to add the small amount of funding needed to give all Vermont families the opportunity to get online now; they’ll know what you’re talking about if you call it the Broadband Equity NOW! proposal. If you can, please ask your friends to do the same.

Thank you.

• Sen. Ann Cummings, Chair; (D) Washington; acummings@leg.state.vt.us (802) 223-6043
• Sen. Mark A. MacDonald, Vice Chair (D) Orange; mmacdonald@leg.state.vt.us (802) 433-5867 senatormark@aol.com
• Sen. Christopher A. Pearson, (P/D) Chittenden; CPearson@leg.state.vt.us (802) 860-3933
• Sen. Randy Brock (R) Franklin; rbrock@leg.state.vt.us (802) 868-2300
• Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D) Chittenden; msirotkin@leg.state.vt.us (802) 999-4360
• Sen. Christopher Bray, (D) Addison; cbray@leg.state.vt.us
• Sen. Ruth Hardy (D) Addison; rhardy@leg.state.vt.us (802) 989-5278

April 05, 2021

Broadband Equity NOW!

NEWS RELEASE:

New Technology and Federal Rescue Money Make It Possible to Give all Vermont Families Access to the Broadband They Need Now

Vermont Children Shouldn’t Have to Study in the Parking Lot of McDonalds

Thanks to years of building and new technology, fast broadband is now physically available almost everywhere in Vermont; but availability is no help to those families who can’t afford service. Federal Rescue money can and must be used to solve the immediate affordability problem, according to testimony to be delivered to the Senate Finance Committee tomorrow by former Vermont Stimulus Czar Tom Evslin testifying on behalf of the nonprofit Broadband Equity NOW!

SENATORS WILL BE TALKING BROADBAND THIS WEEK.

********ZOOM NEWS CONFERENCE WITH SENATOR RANDY BROCK (R-Franklin County) and Tom Evslin from the Nonprofit Broadband Equity NOW!*********

Date: Monday, April 5, 2021

Time: 12 Noon  (ZOOM DETAILS BELOW)

Senator Randy Brock (R, Franklin County) introduced S.118 which allocates money for infrastructure buildout in Vermont and includes a Broadband Corps to help Vermonters get connected. He says: “The pandemic has shown all of us how critical it is to provide universal broadband to every corner of Vermont.  It’s essential for economic development, education, and healthcare.  But broadband is useless unless it is affordable, especially for those of limited means.” 

Evslin will urge legislators to pass a three part Broadband Equity program using $27 million of Rescue funds available from the federal government to assure that all Vermont families, regardless of income or location, have an immediate opportunity to install the broadband they need.

  1. 1. Appropriate money to subsidize both the install cost and some of the monthly costs of using broadband for low-income Vermonters living in areas where the cost of broadband is currently high.
  2. 2. Establish and fund a Broadband Corps to assist low-income Vermonters find the best ISP to serve them now, access whatever aid they qualify for, and assure that they actually do get service.
  3. 3. Require that all internet infrastructure built with federal rescue dollars which flow through the state includes a low-income rate for a service adequate for full participation in the new online Vermont.

Broadband Equity NOW! (BEN) is coordinating preliminary activities by the Community College of Vermont, Vermont Tech, CAP agencies, United Way of NW VT, Vermont 211, Equal Access Broadband and others to assure that the Broadband Corps is “shovel ready”, if approved by the legislature, along with the needed temporary subsidies.

Paul Dragon, CEO of The Champaign Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, says: “At CVOEO access to services and care is the most important thing we do. If we do not increase accessible, low-cost broadband, we cannot further our efforts to educate our Head Start students, create new businesses through our micro-business development program, educate and advocate in our housing programs or increase food access in the Champlain Valley. Without improving access for all populations, public health disparities and economic gaps will persist, widen and deepen. Access to broadband is a social justice and public health issue.”

Tuesday is the first day of testimony in Senate Finance Committee on S.118 and H.360 which is the House bill about broadband construction funds.  Evslin says “the planned expansion should happen but even the most optimistic plans for building fiber optic networks leave families at the end of the road waiting at least another five years for service.  A student entering high school today whose family doesn’t have broadband may still not have service when she graduates. She will not get a full education. She will not be prepared for the online workplace she’ll soon be entering. Her family needs the opportunity to get connected now.”

According to BEN as many as 50,000 Vermont families don’t have the broadband they need because they either can’t afford it or don’t know how to get hooked up and what low-cost plans are available to them. Some of them live in areas where ISPs have affordable low-income plans. They only need help from the Broadband Corps to find a provider and demonstrate their eligibility. Others live in places where hookups can range from $100 to $600 and where monthly charges for acceptable service can be up to $125/month. They need financial help to get online now.

Over 10,000 Vermonters are reportedly on the waiting list for Starlink which is far faster than the broadband many Vermonters depend on today and is more than sufficient to support Zooming, streaming video, and phone service. The wait for Starlink service may be as much as six months. BEN’s proposal includes subsidies for low income families connecting to Starlink or other new services at the end-of-the-road where those services are the fastest way to get broadband although the majority of families to be subsidized are in the territories of existing ISPs.

As Dr. Fauci said about vaccines, the best broadband you can get is the broadband you can get now. Broadband equity is the foundation for building a new and better Vermont. “We have the money and opportunity to act now to achieve universal broadband availability,” says Evslin. “Not acting would be unjust and irresponsible!”

-30-

Broadband Equity NOW! Is a special purpose Vermont nonprofit.  It is providing seed funding and organization for the Broadband Corps so it can be “shovel ready” by August 1, 2021 if further funded by the legislature and is coordinating with CCV, VTC, United Way, Vermont 211, VT Community Foundation, Equal Access Broadband, Capstone, and others for Corps training and support.

ZOOM NEWS CONFERENCE INFORMATION. PLEASE JOIN AND FEEL FREE TO ASK QUESTIONS.

Topic: Affordable Broadband for all Vermonters in Fiscal Year 2022
Time: Apr 5, 2021 12:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
Join Zoom Meeting

https://zoom.us/j/93550530064?pwd=WElaK2NPWERUQWZpTWtQRlNoNnp6UT09

Meeting ID: 935 5053 0064
Passcode: 905069
One tap mobile
+16465588656,,93550530064#,,,,*905069# US (New York)
+13017158592,,93550530064#,,,,*905069# US (Washington DC)

Meeting ID: 935 5053 0064
Passcode: 905069
Find your local number: https://zoom.us/u/acWcMT7c8d

For more information contact: Stephanie Gorin 518-572-9288

March 22, 2021

How to Find Out Free If Starlink Will Work at Your House

There’s an app for that.

Screenshot_20210321-142620_Starlink (002)Starlink low earth orbit satellite (LEOS) broadband service is for those of us in rural areas who don’t have cable or fiber providers at our address. It’s fast: now close to 200 megabits per second (Mbps) download; 20-40Mbps upload; and latency under 50ms.  Can stream multiple hi-res videos simultaneously if you, your spouse, and kids can’t agree on what to watch; supports phone calling and video conferencing. It’s available for ordering with a wait across most but not all of the United States as well as many other parts of the world. It only works if its satellite dish has a clear view of the high northern sky.

Do I have a clear view of the sky?

Download the free Starlink app from the Apple Store or Google Play. Open it up. Choose the check for obstructions option. A few hints:

  1. It does need to know your location so give the app that permission on a one-time basis when it asks.
  2. It is using your camera to look at the sky. You should hold the camera knee high where you intend to put the dish. You must see what it sees. If you don’t want to have to lie on your back under the phone, put the camera in selfie mode. Any kid could’ve told me that, but I had no kids handy and there was snow on the ground.
  3. You won’t see anything if the sky is bright above you. Check for obstacles on a cloudy day.
  4. Get your head out of the way. I took this screen shot on a bright day so didn’t even see myself.
  5. To get the full field, rotate the phone so you’ve looked both when it is lengthwise away from you and has its side to you.
  6. No obstacles means no obstacles. Even one branch in the view can cause dropouts when using the service and satellites duck behind the branch. The best spot may be on your roof.

Can I order in my area?

You can order in Vermont and in Key West but not in San Diego. It all depends on where you are in relation to the satellites planned for this year. Simple way to find out is go to Starlink.com and put in your address. Bad news is when it says “Starlink is not yet available in your area…”. Good news is when it goes right to the order page and asks for your $99 deposit.

When will I get Starlink?

Most people who are ordering currently are told “mid to late 2021.” The dishes are being delivered constantly but Starlink is gating how many go to each area to keep the service quality high. I haven’t heard of anyone being given a date in 2022 but I do know that there are a large and growing number of orders. Before shipment, you get an email asking you to pay the balance of your $499 plus shipping plus local sales tax. Mine came within a week of paying that balance.

See also:

Another Free Way to Tell if Starlink Broadband Will Work at Your Location

Vermont Starlink FAQs

Starlink or Your Local WISP for Broadband Service

Starlink Broadband Access: Game-Changer for Rural Broadband

March 15, 2021

Lessons from the Last Stimulus

Don’t miss the opportunity to use big bucks for big change.

BidendouglasBack when this picture was taken, VP Biden was running the stimulus program for the Obama Administration and I was stimulus czar in Vermont. The other two people in the picture are Vermont Governor Jim Douglas and Heidi Tringe who worked in the Douglas Administration and had worked at the White House. We were there, of course, to advance Vermont interests.

Partly because of this visit, Vermont utilities applying en masse received the largest grant on a per capita basis of any state from the stimulus funds in the energy bucket. That money got spent to install smart meters everywhere in the state. Unlike some stimulus-funded efforts, this one was completed, although, to be honest we haven’t gotten all the benefits from smart meters we hoped we would. A lot of money was also awarded for broadband in Vermont but the FCC, which was doing the awarding, didn’t pay much attention to input from states. The money did improve Vermont’s middle mile IP connectivity but did not bring all the consumer connectivity for either wireless or broadband which was promised.

We did not leverage the money to make significant structural change. We used too much of it to cover short-term problems or even to start programs which later had no good funding source. As the recession lifted, we had made no significant dent in crumbling bridges, an educational system with escalating costs and shrinking student populations, the rapidly rising cost of healthcare, our declining population, abandoned farms, and the cost of living in Vermont and we still have more than 10% of residences with no access to quality broadband. The flood of money came like a thunderstorm in the desert and seemed to disappear into the sand.

Last time most money for infrastructure improvement other than highway bypassed the states and was awarded directly by Washington agencies which knew nothing about local conditions or local providers. I tried to leverage highway funds by mandating that fiber for communication be part of stimulus funded road projects. Both the FCC and Federal Highway Administration said “You can’t combine programs.” No why. No appeal. And we didn’t want to turn down the money.

Then there was the ridiculous restriction that programs had to be “shovel ready”. The Obama Administration hadn’t been in office long enough to know that nothing is shovel ready. Permitting for major projects can take 20 years. No relief on that front either. But most of the money had to be spent fast or it would be redistributed to other states.

That was then and this is now. We can do better.

This time much of the money is coming directly to the government of the state of Vermont and municipal governments. Although all the rules aren’t written, we will apparently have more control of how the money is spent. The $1.35 billion in Corona Virus Relief Fund money includes $113 million for infrastructure including broadband and $197 million for municipalities.

There’s enough money there if used as leverage for private funds so that we can finally have high quality broadband available at every E911 address in Vermont within a year. We can assure that all Vermonters, either in areas currently served or areas currently unserved, can afford the broadband they need to learn at home, work from home, and benefit from telemedicine. Some people say that this will take at least four years, but that’s only because they are looking at plans made before the new money and new technology expanded possibilities. It’s time to think big.

Universal broadband is the infrastructure upon which we should use stimulus funds to reinvent education, health care delivery, work patterns, energy use, and transportation. In order to say that work from home is an option for every Vermonter (and would-be Vermonter) who can find work which can be done at home, we must also be able to say that every Vermonter can Zoom from home. We will want to take the best of what teachers and students have learned about remote learning and use it to supplement – not replace – in person instruction. Every student must be able to participate. We can help control health care costs with telemedicine – so long as telemedicine is available to every Vermonter.

With the coming high percentage of people working all or part time at home, peak traffic loads, peak mass transit usage, and peak electrical demand flatten out. We do need to build our electric grid to reflect distributed generation, an increasing mix of renewables, and the shutdown of Vermont Yankee and to make us resilient in a way Texas and California aren’t in the face of natural disasters. We are getting enough money to allow us to restructure so that future energy costs and environmental impact will be lower, education dollars spent more effectively, and better health care delivered at lower cost.

To make these good things happen, we must have broadband equity – adequate broadband and the tools to use it at every E911 address and affordable to all regardless of income level. A broadband plan which accomplishes this objective in two years is the bedrock on which we can construct a new and even better Vermont using stimulus money.

This is an opportunity we – and America – can’t miss. Our children will have to pay these borrowed stimulus dollars back. That will not be a burden if we invest those dollars wisely so that they earn their own return.

See also Vermont Starlink FAQs

Confessions of a Stimulator

 

March 04, 2021

Vermont Starlink FAQs

  1. What is Starlink?

Starlink is a very high-speed low latency space-based broadband access service designed for use in rural areas worldwide which lack adequate terrestrial broadband infrastructure. The company Starlink, which offers the service, is a subsidiary of SpaceX, the private for-profit space launch company founded by Elon Musk.

  1. What speeds does Starlink offer?

During the Beta test Starlink has consistently delivered speeds between 75-100 megabits per second (Mbps) for download and streaming, 20-25 Mbps for upload, and latency of around 40 milliseconds (ms). All these well exceed the State of Vermont’s minimum standards. Starlink says these speeds will improve as they add satellites and upgrade technology, but best to judge by what is demonstrated today.

  1. Do streaming to multiple devices simultaneously, teleconferencing, and VoIP work over Starlink?

Yes.

  1. How can a satellite service have low latency? Older satellite services like HughesNet are unusable for Zooming, phone calls, or even much web browsing.

The old satellite services used geostationary satellites, which must be 22,000 miles from earth. Even at the speed of light, it takes a relatively long time for a signal to get there and back, hence the latency. Starlink uses low earth orbit satellites (LEOS), which are only a couple of hundred miles high. The travel time for the signal is not significant.

  1. What does Starlink cost?

$499 for the initial kit including a WiFi router and everything you need for a ground installation (close to $600 when you add Vermont tax and shipping). $99/month with no minimum commitment or contract. 30-day money back guarantee on everything. There are currently no data caps. There are no higher or lower speed plans currently available.

  1. Where in Vermont is Starlink available?

It is available everywhere in Vermont although there is currently a waiting period which varies by location. It is designed for use at “the end of the road” since all the required infrastructure is in the sky. Starlink cannot be used where it is not possible to get an unobstructed view of the high sky from west to north to east. The mountains around you probably won’t matter unless you’re in a very narrow valley; the trees in your yard can be a problem.

  1. How does Starlink get installed?

It is self-installing. Out of the box, Starlink can be set on the ground where there is a clear view of the high sky. In Vermont it doesn’t need to see the southern sky. The dish has a motor and positions itself correctly for its location (see video). You do have to find a way to put a single wire through your wall which then carries both signal and power to the dish. At extra cost, you can buy kits for no-holes roof mounting or pole mounting. You use a smartphone app to set up your WiFi network.

  1. Is paid installation available from Starlink?

No.

  1. What happens if the dish is covered by snow or ice?

Doesn’t happen, even in Vermont. The dish is heated.

  1. How reliable is Starlink?

Beta users generally reported good reliability. There were times when the service was deliberately taken down for adjustment. That shouldn’t happen once the beta test is over. It is sensitive to obstructions like tree limbs which typically cause 5-15 second outages (you freeze on Zoom). Choosing a good location for the dish is critical.

  1. Does Starlink degrade in bad weather?

Not noticeably. Unlike satellite TV or service from wireless ISPs, where the radio signals travel almost horizontally, the Starlink signal is going almost straight up so is through the weather in just a few miles. TBD how much it would be affected by a thunderstorm directly overhead.

Starlink is far more reliable than any terrestrial service in a weather emergency so long as you have backup power at your location. The satellites are far above the weather which may topple telephone poles or bring down the lines. They are solar powered so remain in operation indefinitely, unlike the towers of cellular operators and wireless ISPs (WISPs) which can run out of fuel for their generators in a prolonged emergency.

  1. Is Starlink service likely to degrade or have data caps added as more users are added to the system?

Probably not. So far Starlink is limiting the number of new signups to the number of people in each area they can serve without degrading service. They have over 1000 satellites in orbit today – each satellite circles the earth every ninety minutes. 700 of these satellites are operational and the remainder are being positioned for service. Starlink launches 60 new satellites approximately every two weeks on SpaceX reusable rockets.

  1. When is Starlink the best choice for broadband in Vermont?

Dr. Fauci says the best vaccine is the one you can get now. The same is true of broadband service.

If fiber runs by your house and you can have it installed NOW at a reasonable price, it is probably the best option for you.

If you can get enough bandwidth for your needs NOW from a wireless ISP at less cost than Starlink, you may want to do that even though you won’t get the same speed you’ll get with Starlink.

If you don’t currently have cable or excellent wireless ISP service and neither a fiber build or wireless ISP tower is firmly scheduled for this summer for your location and you can afford it and you can see enough of the sky, you ought to order Starlink. It is certainly better quality than DSL from Consolidated if you have that option.

The Starlink service is about on a par today with what you might get from a cable company unless they are suppling fiber. It is about the same cost as fiber plans offering similar speeds – although this may be more speed than you need.

14.Is Starlink an opportunity for Vermont?

Starlink is an opportunity which many Vermonters are already taking advantage of on their own either because they have no other broadband service available or because they’re not satisfied with their existing choices. Starlink is being used in locations which are shown on the most current maps from the Department of Public Service as having no service available which meets the State’s minimum standards. Many more Vermonters are on the waiting list for Starlink

Without Starlink, there is no way to get broadband access NOW in places where it is most needed. With Starlink, the problem of accessibility becomes a problem of affordability

.

  1. Is a subsidy from the State needed to bring Starlink infrastructure to unserved parts of Vermont?

No. The common infrastructure for Starlink is the satellites SpaceX is launching and the Starlink-built ground stations around the world. Your dish and associated electronics don’t depend on any terrestrial infrastructure in the State.

From a public policy point of view, it may well be desirable for the State to subsidize the one-time costs of hookup to services which are available now including Starlink where no other high-quality services are available.

  1. The legislature has authorized towns to form and join Communications Union Districts (CUDs) in order to bring broadband access to the places which don’t have it. Will Starlink make it impossible for the CUDs to perform their mission?

No. The mission of the CUDs is to bring broadband to unserved Vermonters. Prior to the advent of services like Starlink, it was assumed that this meant bringing fiber to every home. CUDs other than ECFiber, which is already in operation, are not promising to get fiber to end-of-the-road locations which most need broadband for at least four years and even then at a very high infrastructure cost – often estimated at more than $3000 per house and escalating the less dense the neighborhood is.

The CUD mission of highspeed broadband everywhere in Vermont is made easier – and achievable sooner – with the option of using Starlink. CUDs can expand fiber out from the hubs without asking those at the end of the road to wait four years or more.

The CUD mission should not be limited to fiber as a solution. Starlink is a useful option for accomplishing the connectivity mission NOW. Those now ordering Starlink now are not waiting for fiber to reach them. If fiber does come to their neighborhoods at a reasonable cost and/or offers better service than Starlink, they can and will switch to the fiber provider. If fiber is not able to offer them better price performance, there is no point in building out the infrastructure.

  1. How do we know Starlink works in Vermont?

News stories on WCAX, in Seven Days, and on VPR cite successful installations. Reports on Stowe Front Porch Forum indicate generally good results. There is a very large Starlink community on Reddit where successes and failures are discussed. Many of these users are in climates more extreme than Vermont.

NEK Broadband, a communications union district in the Northeast Kingdom, is taking a survey of user experience with Starlink in Vermont. The results will be made public. If you have installed Starlink, it would be helpful if you could take a couple of minutes to complete this survey about your experience with the service: https://bit.ly/3aydnBZ . In addition, if you have friends in Vermont who have also installed Starlink, please consider bringing this survey to their attention by forwarding the link. 

  1. How do I order Starlink?

www.starlink.com. You must make a $99 refundable deposit with your order.

  1. How soon will an order be fulfilled?

This depends on your address; Starlink is rationing fulfillment to make sure the service is not locally overburdened. Starlink will give you an indication of availability before you put your deposit down.

These FAQs were prepared by Jock Gill of Peacham and Tom Evslin of Stowe. They are accurate as of this date to the best of our knowledge. Neither of us have any financial interest in nor business connection with Starlink or any affiliated company. For more information see the official Starlink FAQs at https://www.starlink.com/faq.

March 01, 2021

Your DNS May be Leading You Astray

Or at least spying on you.

A dangerous aspect of the #newnormal is increased web attacks aimed at individuals. We make good targets sitting at home online for most of the day with no corporate IT geeks to protect us. Even worse our children are online most of the day – although they may be more tech savvy than their elders.

What’s a DNS and why is it dangerous?

A Domain Name Server (DNS) converts a name like blog.tomevslin.com to an IP address – a string of numbers like 104.18.139.190. It’s very similar to the way we used to use phonebooks to get phone numbers from names. When you type a URL like blog.tomevslin.com into your browser, the browser sends the text of that URL to a DNS which responds with the IP address. The browser then sends a message to that IP address which eventually sends a response to your IP address.

A malicious DNS can send back the wrong address – very similar to tricking you into driving into a dangerous neighborhood. For example, you type in www.mybank.com; the DNS server sends back the address of a site in Moldavia which has a login sequence which was copied from your bank. You faithfully give your name and password. It immediately signs into your real bank account and moves some money out before you even realize there is anything wrong. It may then change the password of your account so you’ll lose more time before reporting a problem.

Another example: you type in www.facebook.com but the evil DNS sends you to a site in Turkmenistan. You get a page that looks like Facebook with a popup over it saying “Facebook needs you to install a new gidget to proceed”. You click OK. The site promptly installs a virus on your computer or locks your files or does something else nefarious.

Less dangerous but still very annoying, your DNS knows the name of every site you visit. That’s valuable information. The operators of a DNS aren’t doing anything illegal when they sell that data or use it to target you with ads. Both happen all the time.

The wrong DNS service can also slow down your browsing. A complex webpage such as you get from almost every site you visit contains dozens if not hundreds of names which must be resolved, one for every picture, for example. If the DNS lookup process is slow, so is page loading even if you have plenty of bandwidth.

Who decides what DNS I use?

Back when you were in the office, the good geeks did that for you. Although you can control this choice (see below for how), by default your ISP makes this decision for you. When you attach your home router to a modem from your ISP, the ISP tells the router the IP address of a DNS to use to resolve domain names. When you are away from home and you logon to the free WiFi in Joe’s Bar and Grill – which will be reopening soon – Joe’s WiFi service by default will decide where your domain name queries are sent. Joe may be able to get internet service more cheaply if he doesn’t ask many questions, which he doesn’t know how to ask anyway, about who is providing the DNS. Next thing you know your web pages are coming from Moldavia or Turkmenistan. The fancy hotel you’re staying in with high-priced WiFi may generously provide their own DNS. They don’t want to misdirect you; they just want to know all about you.

So how do I protect myself?

The good news is that you can protect yourself; the bad news is that it’s complicated and the method differs operating system by operating system and router by router. First you choose what DNS to use (that’s not too bad); then you tell your computer and/or router to honor your choice.

Choosing a DNS

First, second, and third considerations are safety; then comes privacy; and finally speed. Domain name service is usually free to individuals. If you’re a commercial operation or you want your domain name service to actively protect you rather than just refraining from betraying you, you will end up paying something. I’ll just talk about the three most widely used free public domain name services here. They all spread their DNS over multiple data centers for redundancy and speed.

Google Public DNS is probably the most widely used. It lives at IP address 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4. Many ISPs, including Starlink, instruct their customers’ routers to send queries here by default. Google has a specific policy which says it only keeps a list of who resolved what names for 48 hours for debugging purposes and, unlike its search service, does not sell this data or use it for targeting. After 48 hours, it only keeps aggregate data, which it definitely mines.

OpenDNS at 208.67.222.222 and 208.67.220.220 is owned by Cisco. By default it blocks some sites which it believes are used for phishing. This can be a help if you accidentally click a bad link or sometimes an annoyance if you really want to go to the site for some reason or the blacklist is wrong. I cannot find a specific privacy statement for the service. The general Cisco privacy statement would allow them to use and share information about what sites you visit.

Cloudflare 1.1.1.1 at 1.1.1.1 and 1.0.0.1 is my personal favorite. They hire KPMG to audit and assure they aren’t keeping, using, or selling personal data. They claim to be the fastest DNS and do seem to be from my monitoring. They don’t block anything, something I like but you may not.

Specifying your DNS

This is the yucky part (fun for a nerd). You don’t need to open an account with any of these providers to use their service. Even when they don’t mine your data in any way, their hosting businesses benefit by having your queries go their datacenters – that’s why they’re free. You do have to tell your computer – and possibly your router – to go to the IP addresses I gave with each service for domain name resolution. The first address is where the computer goes first; the second is backup in case it doesn’t get an answer.

If your computer is going to travel and connect to any WiFi or ethernet outside your house, it is critical that you specify what DNS you want your computer to use and not let it default to the DNS offered by Joe’s. How you do that differs by operating system. There’s a good rundown for Windows 10 on Windows Central. If you’re running Linux, you already know how to do this. For a Mac, follow the instructions given on the web site of the DNS provider you’ve chosen.

If you have specified a DNS address for all your home computers, they will use that away or at home despite what your ISP may have told your home router to do. Your SmartTV, tablets, smartphonw when connected to home WiFi, and other home devices will do what the router tells them to do. To protect these as well as  guests who sign onto your WiFi, you should also change the primary and secondary DNS addresses in your router. You’ll find the instructions for this by searching your router’s model number and “DNS”.

Good luck – don’t let a DNS mislead you.

February 25, 2021

Reopen Democracy Post the Pandemic

Government by decree cannot become the new normal.

There are things we tolerate during an emergency which we wouldn’t think of tolerating in normal times. Who would’ve dreamed 12 months ago that states could bar visitors from out of state, that governors could close stores and restaurants by decree, that anyone could tell us whom we can and cannot have to dinner?

The hospitals were filling up fast and the death rate was high; doctors didn’t yet know how to treat the new disease; we haven’t had a pandemic since the Spanish Flu. Our legislatures are ponderous and fractious and not designed for fast action even when it’s clearly needed. Although there have certainly been cases of overreach, swift executive action was justified.

There is legitimate disagreement after the fact on how helpful shutdowns and mandates were.  The virus was kept under good control here in Vermont where the rules were strict even at the cost of our tourist business. New York had some of the strictest early mandates – and was the most severely affected state on a population-adjusted basis in the first round of the pandemic. Texas stayed open in the second round and California shut down tight; both states had about the same experience this winter. Any analysis is complicated because what was mandated and what people did are different: not all Californians stayed home because they were told to; not all Texans went to discos because they were allowed to.

What we didn’t know last spring justified unprecedented executive action; that can’t be judged by hindsight. We will work to bring the economy back and build a new and different tomorrow.

But that new tomorrow must not include further suspension of democracy every time the wheels of constitutional government grind slow.

“Let’s declare climate change to be a national health emergency. Then Biden won’t be hampered by Congress in addressing it.”  People who are otherwise reasonable say this. They are saying they want a dictatorship because they can’t get what they want in a democracy.

“Let’s declare racism a national health emergency.” Same idea. Our constitution stands in the way of banning free speech, even hurtful free speech. Voters don’t want preferences for any ethnic group, not even in California where a pro-preferences referendum was voted down by the same voters who crumped Trump in that state. No problem; declare an emergency. Racism must be addressed – democratically.

It’s incredible to me that many of those who are in favor of unfettered “emergency” executive power are among those who are most appalled at the threat the last President was to democracy as he tried to cling to power. Ruling by emergency decree is a time-tested way of imposing dictatorship. It is quite possible that the next president will again be someone you disagree with. Why would you want to give him or her unlimited power?

Yes, we need to elect a congress and state legislatures which do their job of passing laws (and budgets) on a timely basis. No, we must not let “emergency rule” crush democracy just because democracy is inconvenient.

February 23, 2021

Starlink or Your Local WISP for Broadband Service

A tale of two dishes.

Dishy
Starlink dish
Globalnetdish
GlobalNet dish

Last week someone on our local online Front Porch Forum asked advice on whether they should use Starlink, Elon Musk’s new low earth orbit satellite (LEOS) service, or GlobalNet, a local wireless ISP (WISP). I have experience with both so answered. This specific answer applies directly to people in Stowe, VT and to GlobalNet, but it may be of interest to you if you also have a choice between a local WISP and Starlink. If Starlink is your only option for broadband and you can afford it, you should order it ASAP.

I said that I would recommend either one of them over DSL from Consolidated (our local telco), which I am about to cancel. Our DSL can’t handle even 2Mbps on upload or get better than 20Mbp on download. Many peoples DSL is even worse because they are further from where the copper meets the fiber. Like many Vermonters, I cannot get cable or fiber to the home right now.

Location:

To use GlobalNet from Stowe, you need to be able to see their transmitter on top of Mt. Mansfield.

To use Starlink from around here, you need a view of the northwest sky.

This may be all you need to know to choose between them.

Availability:

GlobalNet will install within weeks of getting an order.

There is a wait for Starlink. Someone I know in Morrisville has been told by Starlink that it will be summer at the earliest before they can get service, but this may be different in Stowe. You can find out your wait time on the Starlink site if you try to order.

Price and speed:

GlobalNet has plans ranging from $29.95/mo to $84.95/mo. The low end is extremely slow but 30Mbps down and about 15Mbps up is $59.95. There is a $149 install fee and a one-year minimum contract required for the first year. No penalty for discontinuing after the first year. GlobalNet owns the dish and radio and you must give them back at the end of your contract (no reason why you would want to keep them). GlobalNet does not supply a router, so you need to buy your own. About $50 for the simplest.

Starlink is $99/mo for a plan that provides speeds between 50-150Mbps down and 20-40Mbps up with higher speeds promised. Initial equipment costs $499 (almost $600 with tax and shipping). In this case you are buying the equipment which you will have no use for if you later switch to another service. It does come with a very simple router which you will want to replace if you’re a nerd like me who wants to do complicated stuff. There is no contract and there is a 30-day no fault return policy.

Neither service currently limits the amount of data you can transfer. Latency is not a problem for either one. Both are more than suitable for multiple video stream, VoIP, Zooming, and most gaming.

Reliability:

 GlobalNet is affected by very heavy rain or wet snow. There was a period last month when service was degraded for a couple of days by ice on their antenna. Sometimes quality seems to dip for a while but those have been getting much less frequent.

Starlink is still building and testing their service. I am using it for lots of Zoom calls but there are short intervals - 5-15 seconds once or twice an hour - when I freeze. These could be due to a branch in the field of view of my dish or the service itself. There have been a few longer outages as they predicted during their beta test, but the beta test is now over. The service has not been affected by weather and the dish is heated so it sheds snow.

Installation:

GlobalNet does this for you including running wire into your house and connecting a router.

Starlink is "self-installing". The dish does aim itself, but you've got to figure a way to get the wire through your wall. You can see the dish aiming itself at the right part of the sky in this video.

Service:

You can call GlobalNet and a knowledgeable person in Vermont answers during business hours. They usually return messages left in off hours. GlobalNet service techs who do installation and fix onsite problems are courteous and competent.

You can file an online ticket with Starlink. They respond but right now are only helping with installation problems. They have no techs making service calls. There is an active Starlink community on Reddit and you can find answers for some questions there.

Other:

GlobalNet is a Vermont small business.  They’ve been around since the dialup days and have steadily improved. I like to deal with local businesses.

Starlink is a service of SpaceX, one of Elon Musk’s companies. There is a technology excitement about his products, even the ones without wheels.

Both services are less likely to be knocked out in a storm than anything on telephone poles. That only helps, of course, if you have standby power. GlobalNet is vulnerable to a power failure on Mt. Mansfield but there are backup generators there. Starlink would keep operating even if there were no power anywhere in Vermont. Its fleet of over 1000 satellites, with about 60 new ones added each two weeks, is highly redundant and not affected by terrestrial disasters.

See also:

Starlink Broadband Access: Game-Changer for Rural Broadband

Starlink Broadband Service - More on the Beta plus Exciting Video

Starlink Broadband Passes “Better Than Nothing” Beta Test

WCAX video on Starlink

VPR audio on Starlink

Seven Days on Starlink

February 18, 2021

Where Does the Untargeted Stimulus Relief Money Go?

Hint: Bitcoin is up 1350% since last March

BitcoinMost US stock market indices are also at record highs. Mass speculation is driving dizzying ups and downs in stocks like GameStop out of any correlation with the worth of the companies involved. There’s too much money sloshing around!

Relief for people put out of work by the virus or the lockdowns it caused is and was a very good thing. Extending unemployment because of the special circumstances made sense, although paying bonus unemployment has kept some people from rejoining the labor force.

Sending out checks to people who were not affected by the pandemic was a bad idea the first time around and is an even worse idea now. Many people who were able to switch to work from home are better off financially because they don’t have commuting expense. Most of us are spending less because we don’t eat out, travel for fun, or go to events. As you can see below, the US savings rate has sky-rocketed during the pandemic even though Americans are also paying down debt.

Savings

Isn’t all that saving and debt paying a good thing? Well, it would be if we as a people weren’t borrowing many times that amount to give relief both to those who need it and those who don’t. It would be if much of the “relief” money wasn’t ending up in bubble assets. Moreover, some of the savings are going to disappear when inflated stocks and perhaps Bitcoin plummet.

Some economists say it was and is a good idea to just shovel money into the economy so demand doesn’t plummet. But, at the same time we gave out heaps of money indiscriminately, we closed much of the local economy.  Money can’t be spent in closed stores and restaurants. Certainly the extra money helped Amazon – its sales for 2020 were $386 billion, up 38% from 2018. Their net profit did even better: up 84%. Where else were people who didn’t need stimulus money going to spend it other than buying from Amazon, buying Bitcoin, and playing the stock market.

We’re not out of the pandemic yet. We do need more money for vaccination, for treatment, to track cases and mutations, and to help those who are still being kept out of work. We do need to rebuild our infrastructure. We do need to get broadband everywhere and make sure that even the poorest households can afford access. What we don’t need – but are getting anyway – is more checks to people who don’t need relief. Trust me, Jeff Bezos is doing fine.

For unwise stimulus to the rich and rich corporations see: Flying Elephants Aren’t Pretty

February 16, 2021

Essential Workers Should be Vaccinated

There should be vaccine available for essential workers. Essential Workers should be required to get vaccinated.

Vermont, like many other states, gave its first vaccinations to heath care workers and first responders broadly defined. These are the workers who are most at risk for catching COVID. These are also the people who would be most likely to spread COVID to the vulnerable populations they work with - especially since COVID is apparently most contagious while still asymptomatic. It was a good decision.

According to a story in VT Digger, only 60% of workers in skilled nursing facilities in Vermont have been vaccinated even though all have been offered the vaccine. Their patients, of course, are the people most likely to die of COVID if infected. The skilled nursing facilities should start replacing the workers who refuse vaccination. 90% of heath care workers in other facilities in Vermont have received their shots. The other 10% should work in a less essential profession.

Vermont is well along in its program of vaccinating the most vulnerable (including me on account of geezerhood). The state is considering whether, after the over 65s are done, it should assure vaccine is available for a broader category of essential workers.

Employers such as airlines are asking for their workers to be given priority; unions, especially the teachers’ unions, are demanding priority for their members. State governments are deciding and will have to continue to decide who goes to the front of the line.  The decision should be based both on who has high exposure and who is most likely to pass the disease on to others.

Any decision to declare a class of workers “essential” as far as vaccination is concerned should not only make vaccine available to those workers but also require that they take it as a condition of continued employment in their essential line of work.

See also: It’s Time for Mandatory Vaccinations

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