August 04, 2021

Is Political Correctness Putting Gay Americans at Risk?

The Provincetown outbreak may be a warning about Covid vaccine effectiveness in immunocompromised people.

According to the NYTimes, 965 recent cases of Covid have been traced to gatherings in Provincetown  and 75% of those cases were among vaccinated individuals. Does this mean the vaccine was ineffective? Not at all.  If 100% of individuals were vaccinated (I wish), there would still be breakthrough cases and 100% of them would be among vaccinated individuals.

But it is a surprisingly high number of cases none the less. What does it tell us? The Times dances around one possibility. The article points out that Provincetown is “a mecca for gay men”. It then says:

“So many gay men poured in for Circuit Party week, the first week of July, that people on social media started sharing photos of the lines outside clubs, snaking for blocks….

“By the end of the week, Mr. Katsurinis [Chair of the town Board of Health] was taking reports of positive coronavirus cases — all gay men, with an average age of 30 to 35, many of whom had seen a doctor for other reasons, like flu symptoms or sexually transmitted infections, not suspecting the coronavirus.”

Later the article points out that one of the people it interviewed is a HIV positive.

But the article never raises the obvious question. Is it possible that the vaccine is less effective – perhaps much less effective – in a community which has a high percentage of HIV positive individuals? The question must have occurred to the reporters since the story is full of references to the gay population and HIV. Why else is the sexual orientation of the infected relevant? Did the question get edited out of the story because it may have been taken as homophobic? Has political correctness brought us to the point that we’d put a population at risk rather than ask a question which could be misinterpreted?

Here’s a possible line of reasoning which may be completely wrong but needs investigation – and hopefully is being investigated by the CDC. But please do NOT take my speculation as an assertion; I do not have enough information to claim that vaccination is not as effective in a predominantly gay population as it is in the general population.

  1. As the Times points out Provincetown visitors are predominantly gay men for the historic reason that Provincetown was tolerant long before the rest of the country.
  2. In the US HIV rates are higher among gay men than the general population so it’s reasonable to assume (but needs verification) that a higher proportion of HIV-positive men were in the partying crowds than would be the case in other party towns.
  3. “People living with HIV should be prioritised for COVID-19 vaccination, the World Health Organization (WHO) said last week, following the release of research at the 11th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Science (IAS 2021) showing that people with HIV have an increased risk of being admitted to hospital with severe COVID-19 and of dying from COVID-19.”(link). Note that even if the vaccine has the same effectiveness in gay and non-gay populations, if WHO is right, the actual risk would remain higher in the gay population since vaccine only reduces risk proportionally from whatever the baseline is.
  4. A study by Dr. Dorry Segev, a John Hopkins transplant surgeon, shows that response to the Covid vaccine is greatly reduced in immunosuppressed people which indicates but doesn’t prove that the vaccine will be much less effective for them. Note that the people in Dr. Segev’s study were immunocompromised because they had transplant surgery, not because of HIV. However, the CDC says: “Examples of persons with weakened immune systems include those with HIV/AIDS; cancer and transplant patients who are taking certain immunosuppressive drugs; and those with inherited diseases that affect the immune system….”; and so the study results may well apply to those with HIV.
  5. It makes sense that some vaccines are less effective in immune-compromised people since vaccines stimulate the immune system to do the work of fighting the pathogen. If the immune system is weak, then it is liable to be less effective against infection even after vaccination than a fully functioning immune system.

So where does all this lead?

First it is urgent that the effectiveness of the vaccine in HIV-positive populations be studied. There should now be plenty of data to do that. If, as Provincetown may indicate, the vaccine is less effective for HIV-positive people, they need to know that their risk is higher, and it may be important to schedule them for a third shot. France is already urging boosters for the immunocompromised.

Second, the CDC should not over-react to the Provincetown cluster by appearing to downplay the effectiveness of vaccination against the Delta variant. As the Times keeps hinting at but never quite saying, this was not just any beach town.

It is bad for HIV-positive people (or any other cohort) not to tell them honestly what dangers they face. The CDC is not helping convince people to get vaccinated when it cites a cluster in an well-vaccinated but atypical reference population to get everyone to mask up again regardless of vaccination status.

Political correctness and government propagandizing are both hampering the fight against Covid.

See also:

Walk the Vaccination Walk!

Should Vaccination be Required for Medical Professionals?

July 26, 2021

Walk the Vaccination Walk!

The US government talks the talk about Covid vaccination but doesn’t walk the walk. The CDC and the FDA say “get vaccinated” but they don’t act as if they really believe in the efficacy of the shots.

You couldn’t be more pro Covid vaccination than me. I stayed up all night to make sure I could register for my shot the moment the Vermont computer would let me. After having both doses and waiting our two weeks, Mary and I joyfully broke our self-imposed quarantine and went on a six-week RV trip to get reacquainted with relatives and friends and then flew to Italy to meet our newest granddaughter.

Italy let us in without quarantine because we had vaccine certificates; they would also have let us in if we had negative Covid tests within 48 hours of our arrival. The US government didn’t care about our vaccinated status; instead they insisted on Covid tests three days before departure, which is a much less reliable indication of whether we were likely to bring the virus home. Italy’s actions encourage vaccination; the US doesn’t seem to think it’s important.

Canada says it is ready to let US citizens drive into their country with proof of vaccination. The US is neither wiling to reciprocate nor has it said that US citizens can use their vaccination status to drive home again. Canada is encouraging vaccination; the US doesn’t seem to think it’s important.

Colleges around the country including Vermont are requiring vaccination as a condition of returning in the fall. Good for them. But there isn’t even a US advisory which says that state and hospitals should make vaccination compulsory for health care workers.

It was entirely appropriate for the FDA to give “emergency approval” of the Covid vaccines when they did. It is, however, totally inappropriate that the vaccines have not now received final approval and that we have also not been told what the FDA is waiting for. Lack of final approval is an excuse – and not actually an unreasonable one – for people not to get vaccinated. Lack of information about what is required for final approval is a great way to stoke conspiracy theories. If Dr. Fauci and President Biden believe approval will come before the end of August as they have both said, they need to tell us why there isn’t final approval now. I suspect the reasons are bureaucratic but that’s no excuse for undermining public confidence in both the vaccines and the approval process.

According to the NYTimes, “In France, as of Aug. 1, anyone without a “health pass” showing they have been vaccinated or recently tested negative will not be admitted to restaurants, cafes or movie theaters, and they will not be able to travel long distances by train…”

More than 2.2 million people signed up to get vaccinated in the first 48 hours after French President Macron made this announcement. Note he is not saying vaccination is mandatory; French people who don’t want to get vaccinated but do want to travel or eat out, just need to get the very frequent Covid tests necessary to protect others from them. But he did say the tests will not remain free. Fair enough.

Instead of acting as if vaccinations matter, the US government spends its efforts trying to ban “bad information”. The way to stop bad information is to provide good information. The way to strengthen conspiracy theories is trying to ban any sort of speech.

Accelerating infections from the Delta variant are now causing some Americans to rethink their opposition to vaccination. A federal government which acts as if it thinks vaccination matters instead of just talking can still assure us a practical if not absolute end to the pandemic by fall.

July 19, 2021

Computing Clouds in Orbit – A Possible Roadmap

Last week, I predicted that much of the internet and most cloud datacenters will launch into space in the next ten years. Today the only part of the Internet in space is a very small amount of “bent-pipe” access: signals which go from a user to a satellite and bounce back down to a ground station which feeds them into the terrestrial internet where all processing is done and all queries answered by internet connected servers, many of them in cloud data centers. Responses follow a reverse path through a ground station, back to a satellite, and then to the user. Below is a possible roadmap to the orbital internet; reality will certainly vary.

  1. Starlink and Iridium prove the practicality of internet access service based on Low Earth Orbit Satellites (LEOS) - done

See The Internet and The Cloud Are Going into Space.

  1. Bent-pipe access via LEOS creates a huge market in orbit

On the supply side, Starlink will go from 1500 to at least 44,000 satellites. OneWeb, a European competitor, has launched 54 satellites and will go commercial this fall. Kuiper from Amazon will come online in the next couple of years. Starlink will get laser-based satellite-to-satellite working and be able to provide service in most of the world where it has no ground stations.

On the demand side, all users of obsolete slow-responding geocentric satellites are converting to LEOS as fast as they can. Even though fiber currently provides faster access than satellites, fiber is slow to deploy and perhaps never will get to the end of the road. Fiber can’t provide mobile access which is required both by people and the Internet of Things (IoT), which will soon include all cars. Iridium already provides mobile access and Starlink will soon. 5G is the main competitor for this market. For emergencies, no terrestrial solution is adequate for communication. Poles and towers are subject to the same catastrophes as the people who depend on them locally.

Starlink says it has contracts for backhaul from remote cell towers not on the fiber network to the internet backbone. This is the first but won’t be the last example of cellular acting as a concentrator and distributor of traffic which passes through LEOS.

Technology will increase the capability of LEOS service and competition will drive down the price.

  1. Caching for and in orbit

Caching in internet terms means storing replicas of frequently accessed information near the consumer of that information to speed response times and lower overall communication costs. Every time you click on a URL, a query goes to a domain name server (DNS) somewhere to lookup the physical address on the internet of the web site your query is headed for.  For example, google.com converts to 8.8.8.8. At least part of the DNS directory will quickly be cached in all ground stations. Large ISPs often host their own domain name servers to increase responsiveness; Starlink will not be an exception. I’ll be astonished if Starlink doesn’t start caching DNS directories in access satellites shortly. Users will experience great responsiveness and Starlink will save an exchange with a ground station for each truncated query.

Companies like Akamai and Cloudflare operate content delivery networks (CDNs). On behalf of content owners, the CDNs cache copies of fairly static content (movies, for example, but also many other types of web page) at locations around the internet This is a form of hosting which saves content owners from having to own huge data centers with huge pipes themselves and assures that the content is quickly accessible from all the world which each content owner cares about. Whether Starlink will operate its own CDN or partner remains to be seen; what is certain is that terabytes of content will move into space to be “near” users of satellite access. At this point we will see the first dedicated cache satellites. Access satellites will query them by laser.

  1. Smart routing in orbit

Once satellites can talk to each other, they become routers and can manage quality of service and optimize routing dynamically to some extent just as terrestrial routers do. If a query can be answered in space by a cache satellite, the query’ll go there and get a very fast response with no bouncing around in the terrestrial internet. If a query does need to go to earth, it might be routed with a satellite hop or two to a ground station collocated with a data center which can process some or all the request.

  1. LEOS gain a speed advantage

With smart routing, caching, and content delivery hubs in space and at ground stations, a query sent through LEOS will often get faster response than the same query sent through the terrestrial internet. All packets traverse a net of routers to get to their ultimate destination. Each router adds delay to the packet’s journey for processing and queuing time. Each satellite can get traffic to any other satellite with a maximum of four hops, usually less. If the packet is then served from a space-based cache or a data center with a download station collocated, which will be most data centers in a few years, there are less hops and more alternatives for dealing with congestion. The speed of light is also 50% faster in space than in fiber, but that is not as significant to response time as reducing the number of hops.

  1. Peering in orbit

Once competitive networks are firmly established in space, satellites from Starlink, Kuiper, OneWeb and other operators will start to exchange packets with each other via laser; this kind of traffic exchange, which is called peering. is already standard practice among terrestrial ISPs, even fierce competitors. They don’t do it to be nice; they peer because of Metcalfe’s Law: the value of a network is directly proportional to the square of the number of endpoints. The ISPs gain more by combining their networks than they do by keeping them separate. Same goes is space.

  1. Terrestrial aggregation

People like high frequency traders and very serious gamers, for whom every millisecond counts, will start to use LEOS for access even when they live in areas with fiber. Fiber operators will start to add routes directly to space from their networks.

Mobile applications (think automated cars) which need rapid response will be connected mainly by cellular networks unless space technology has evolved quickly enough for them to connect to LEOS (which is possible). Even cell towers located on fiber backbone will start talking directly to LEOS to better serve their traffic.

  1. Data centers in space – the cloud in orbit

Within five years (I usually underestimate time), there will be major data centers in space for simple economic reasons. Data center location depends on where the traffic is and the local price of energy to run the data center and its attendant air conditioning. Within five years a high percentage of queries will be passing through space; solar power is free once you’ve repaid the capital cost of solar panels and launch; a/c isn’t needed in space. The physical bulk of a data center without a/c and built for zero gravity will be relatively easy to lift into orbit.

Security concerns alone are enough to make governments and corporations want to replicate key command, control, and data out of the reach of terrestrial physical attack. Amazon is the biggest operator of data centers on earth; they will move quicky to orbit; cloud providers who don’t offer an orbital location will be at a significant disadvantage.

  1. Computers built for orbit

Currently computers are built to run on earth. Their speed is limited by how fast electricity can travel through their circuits; energy lost in transit becomes unwanted heat. A chip designed for use in space can be run at temperatures near absolute zero. At these temperatures many materials become superconducting; they provide almost no electrical resistance. The computers in an orbital data center will be faster than their terrestrial predecessors.

If there is still cyber-currency mining, it will be done in orbit where none of the energy used is polluting and calculations can be done faster than anywhere else.

Especially with stricter and stricter environmental controls, it will be hard to justify building another data center on earth!

  1. New backbone, when needed, is built in orbit, not under the ocean

With space-based caching, orbiting computer centers, and traffic relayed through space from mobile sources and aggregators as well as individuals, there won’t be growing demand for terrestrial backbone. Just as the highway network disrupted the railroads because of greater routing and dispatching flexibility, orbital routing and processing will shrink the demand for long haul fiber. Even where communication is between two terrestrial locations, the shortest and cheapest route will usually be through space. Sure, a New York to London flight is a good way to get traffic between these two cities; but, if you’re going Minneapolis to Birmingham, do you really want to connect twice in the hubs? Neither do your packets. Space is the realm of the most direct connections.

And in conclusion….

This roadmap is just to demonstrate that there is a credible way for the internet and cloud computing to become mainly orbital. It surely won’t happen in exactly this way and may not happen at all. Since each step above lowers the cost of computing and communications, each of these steps – at least the ones which actually occur – will present enormous opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurs.

See also:

The Internet and The Cloud Are Going into Space

As the Phone World Turns Part 3 – Metcalfe’s Law

Your DNS May be Leading You Astray

Starlink

July 13, 2021

The Internet and The Cloud Are Going into Space

Unlike Bezos and Branson, they’re going to stay there.

Today we have space-based internet access and a terrestrial internet; within ten years, we’ll have a space-based internet. Internet traffic will travel more miles in space than on terrestrial fiber. By that time the great cloud datacenters of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and their competitors and successors will mostly be in orbit as well. Five years from now this transition will be obvious, accepted, and well under way – or this will turn out to be the dumbest prediction I’ve ever made. Starlink is not the cause of the internet moving to space; it’s an early example of the technologies which are enabling the move.

The primer (nerds feel free to skip)

Today the components of space-based internet access are a user radio and an antenna which is usually but not always dish shaped, satellites, and ground stations with their own radios and dish antennas which provide access to the terrestrial internet backbone. Techies like to call the satellite link a “bent-pipe”. Your packets go through your radio to a satellite; they are sent back down to a ground station; they go to whatever their destination is on the internet; a reply comes back to a ground station, goes back up to a satellite, and finally back down to your radio and you. Note that even the simplest query takes four hops through space, and so the time space hops take is very important to how long it takes for you to get a reply. We call the time between query and reply “latency”. The time a space hop takes depends mostly on how far away the satellite is since radio signals travel at a constant 186,000 mile/second in a vacuum.

The first satellites used for internet access almost 20 years ago were geostationary (GEOS): 24 hours/day, 365.25 days/year they are at the same spot in the sky as seen from any spot on earth. Having them stationary means it’s possible to aim a dish antenna at them; a directional antenna like a dish is an energy-efficient way to communicate point-to-point. One big problem though: the laws of orbital mechanics say that GEOS must be 22,000 miles high. Four hops of 22,000 miles each require more than 0.5 seconds to complete even ignoring any delay in the satellite and on the ground. The human ear is sensitive to delays of more than 0.15 seconds. Zoom-like interactivity is essentially impossible although streaming, since it’s one way, works fine. Even web-browsing is very painful using GEOS because the typical web page takes many interactions to assemble itself.

Companies like WildBlue offered internet access using GEOS. HughesNet and Viasat still do in the US. Bandwidths have gone up since I wrote about my experience with WildBlue (Why Satellite Internet Access Sucks) but the latency problem with GEOS is incurable and the bandwidth of the technology they use makes the companies impose data caps which are unrealistically low by today’s standards. Users of GEOS are eager to convert to almost anything else (except possibly DSL); but they don’t usually have other options available where they live.

The solution to the latency problem is low earth orbit satellites (LEOS). These orbit only a few hundred miles above the earth so the travel time of each hop is negligible. However, being low, they orbit the earth in about 90 minutes and appear to zip across the sky. There’s no way to mechanically aim a dish at them. With a small non-directional antenna, the amount of data which can be exchanged without expending a huge amount of energy and frying objects in the immediate vicinity is small.

Nevertheless, Iridium, which has gone through bankruptcy once, has several very useful mobile applications based on a fleet of 66 LEOS in polar orbit which covers every spot on earth. They’ve improved since I wrote about them (Going Sailing) and were essential to a sail I took from Norway to Scotland and back.  Their LEOS, most of which were launched under contract by SpaceX – parent of Starlink, can communicate with each other so a packet may take several hops in space before finding a satellite which can see a ground station. The advantage of this approach is that they only need four ground stations and the service works even in countries which don’t allow ground stations to be built.

Only one of Iridium’s services is internet access strictly speaking. It is available with or without a fairly expensive but usable, voice service. The bandwidth is low – think dialup speeds; but, when you’re in the middle of an ocean and need a weather forecast or other info it’s far better than nothing. Iridium is packaged with products like Garmin’s InReach which leaves breadcrumbs on a website wherever you roam and can also be used for an SOS anywhere the sky is visible. A large number of devices with low but urgent data needs (the Internet of Things) take advantage of Iridium as do aircraft. The Iridium access devices have small, non-directional antennas which can connect with the LEOS which zip by. Because the antennas are non-directional and battery-operated radios are low-powered, Iridium is not suitable for high-bandwidth applications.

And now there’s Starlink with some 10,000 users as of February (a very small number), perhaps 500,000 people who’ve put down deposits and are waiting an indeterminate amount of time for service, still in beta but a proof of concept for delivering affordable high bandwidth to remote places with LEOS. Starlink antennas are dishes but they track satellites without moving the dish using an electronically shaped beam – an important breakthrough for high bandwidth. SpaceX has pioneered reusable rockets so they can launch swarms of satellites cheaply  - about 1500 are in service now with 120 or so new ones launched each month

Starlink has an agreement to collocate ground stations with Microsoft and Google cloud datacenters – a development not lost on Amazon which has received licenses to launch its own competitive satellite constellation called Kuiper and has started a space division.

Next

The next post in this series describes about how the competition between Starlink and Kuiper, Bezos and Musk, will lift the internet backbone and the cloud datacenters themselves into space.

see Starlink for more on that service.

fir how the internet is going into orbit see: Computing Clouds in Orbit – A Possible Roadmap

July 06, 2021

A Programmer’s Dilemma

Your life may depend on the answer.

Suppose you are a skilled artificial intelligence programmer working on the decision-making algorithm for a self-driving car. Most of the decisions are straight forward assuming the car has sufficient information. Stop for red lights. Stop rather than run over people, animals, or things. Accelerate to a safe (and legal?) speed at a rate which takes into account how well the tires are gripping the road. Turn the wheel in the direction of a skid. Pump the brakes when necessary.

Do you brake for deer? This one’s a little tougher. It depends on road conditions and assumptions about the ability of any car vehicle behind you to react to your braking. But the principle is clear; you do what’s best for the occupants of the car. You don’t hit a moose even if you have to brake suddenly because the moose’s barrel body will come through the windshield and kill someone.

Now the tough one. The car is on a narrow mountain road with a 3000 foot drop off to the left and a solid cliff on the right. It comes around a turn and there are four children unaccountably in the road. There is not enough space to stop or even slow down substantially. The car knows that. Going straight will kill the children. If the car turns into the cliff wall, it will careen off and still hit the children. The only way to save the children is to plunge off the road, which will almost surely kill the solo occupant (and owner of the car).  The car can’t just give control back to the owner; there’s obviously not enough time.

Is the first rule of robotic cars to protect occupants? Or is the first rule to protect human life in general so it’s got to go with the least number of fatalities? Does the owner get to set preferences for decisions like this one? That’s not completely unreasonable since human drivers get to make their own decisions. How would you like to have to choose from these alternatives when you first set up your car?

  1. always save the lives of those outside the car rather than protecting occupants.
  2. always save the lives of occupants rather than protecting those outside the car.
  3. always save the greatest number of human lives.
  4. protect certain listed occupants (perhaps your children) at all costs.
  5. protect the lives of those least at fault in setting up the situation.

Etc. And what are the liability consequences of setting these preferences?

Should an ethical programmer insist that a car sold with his or her code in it have mouse print that spells out whether or not the car thinks it has to protect its driver at all costs? With a lot of work, code could be written so you could interview your car by giving it scenarios and asking it what it would do in each circumstance.

I have no idea how these decisions are being made today. I am sure that there are programmers who are dealing with them. I do not think the answer is to ban self-driving cars; I believe they will soon save many lives overall by being better drivers than humans – even though they will kill some people.

June 29, 2021

The World Reacts to Possible UFOs

Actual story in The Wall Street Journal:

"UFO Report Says ‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomena’ Defy Worldly Explanation

"Propulsion and technology in some cases exceed present-day scientific knowledge, U.S. officials say"

Anticipated world reaction:

Fox News: This is the entirely foreseeable result of the welcome mat Biden has extended to aliens.

CNN: Another toxic legacy of the Trump administration’s ant-science policy surfaces to challenge the new administration.

@realdonaldtrump (if he were allowed to tweet): Now we can see who helped Sleepy Joe steal the election.

Washington Post: Anonymous sources confirm that aliens are here only to witness Jeff Bezos’ historic space flight.

Elon Musk: Their technology is braindead.

Pres. Biden: We are proposing another $5 trillion in spending to prevent panic.

Mitch McConnell: Maintaining the filibuster will prevent panic.

Dr. Fauci: I would have informed Americans of this risk earlier but I was afraid they’d stop wearing masks.

World Health Organization: There is no evidence that there is a risk of airborne contagion. We are seeking permission from the visitors to investigate further.

OAC: The very term “alien” is degrading and another example of toxic white masculinity.

The New York Times: A scientific consensus is emerging that POOW (People of Other Worlds) have been attracted by the buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Proud Boys: The Jewish conspiracy is galatic (sic).

Antifa: Disarm the police.

Andrew Cuomo: Despite allegations to the contrary, I wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole.

Spokewoman for Israeli Defense Forces: The IDF will respond overwhelmingly to any provocation.

Iranian Ayatollah: The American and Israeli butchers must be made to pay a steep price.

Pres. Putin: The chemists of the KGB have prepared an antidote.

Anonymous hacker: NOTICE TO ALIENS: DO NOT TURN OFF YOUR COMPUTER. YOUR ROUTE HOME HAS BEEN ENCRYTED. IMMEDIATE PAYMENT IN BITCOIN IS REQUIRED.

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!”

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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)
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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

 

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