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. 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 now that 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

February 12, 2021

Starlink Broadband Access: Game-Changer for Rural Broadband

An intractable accessibility problem becomes a curable affordability problem.

At the end of this excellent video segment about Starlink in Vermont, Clay Purvis, Director of Connectivity at the Department of Public Service (DPS) , tells WCAX’s Cat Viglienzoni “I think it might be a game-changer for rural Vermont if they can really meet the demand we have.”

Wcax

Many who live at the end of the road in rural Vermont have had no prospect of getting usable broadband access in the near future for love or money. They’re too far from the central offices of the telcos for usable DSL; cablecos don’t have a business case for going the last mile; wireless ISPs have to build new towers to serve these remote locations. Even the Emergency Broadband Action Plan published by DPS doesn’t envision fiber getting to these premises before 2024.

In other words, the further out you are, the longer it’s going to take to get infrastructure to you.

The beauty of low earth orbit satellite (LEOS) broadband as provided by Starlink is that the infrastructure is already there in the sky. It’s just as easy to see a satellite from a remote location as it is from downtown – maybe easier because you have room for a dish. Unlike the last generation of satellite services which relied on geostationary satellites 22,000 miles above the earth service from LEOS a few hundred miles high is better than any service available today except high end fiber and there are currently no limits on the amount of data you send or receive each month.

Starlink cost almost $600 for equipment including shipping and handling and $99/month. For well-to-do people this isn’t an issue and orders for the service are already backlogged in Vermont and across rural America. For others - including many who need the ability to study at home, work from home, and use telemedicine – price is an issue even when availability isn’t.

In the long term the price of satellite access will come down. Both Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have said that they’ll launch services which compete with Elon Musk’s Starlink. But the need for rural broadband access is now.

Subsidies directly to lower income families to buy broadband access make civic sense whether those families are in areas already served by a traditional broadband service or in the areas which Starlink has suddenly made accessible.

Having the option to get service to the far corners of Vermont NOW is the game-changer Clay is talking about.

Cautions: Starlink is still in Beta and has Beta glitches. It’s called the “better than nothing” Beta and it is better than nothing. But the service shouldn’t be eligible for subsidies until it has demonstrated sustained reliability except where there is nothing else usable. That milestone should be achieved in the next months. Also, like other broadband solutions, Starlink doesn’t get to every last home; it requires a good view of the sky. It won’t get us all the way to zero unserved by itself. But it IS a game changer.

See also:

Starlink Broadband Passes “Better Than Nothing” Beta Test

Starlink Broadband Service - More on the Beta plus Exciting Video

February 08, 2021

Starlink Broadband Service - More on the Beta plus Exciting Video

Elon Musk likes robots.

Antenna Installation

If you have last generation satellite internet access, broadband from a wireless ISP (WISP), or even satellite television from DISH or DIRECTV, an installer came and carefully aimed a dish antenna for you. Starlink, a broadband access service from Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, reimagines the install process and, in most cases, eliminates the need for an installer. The Starlink dish can sit on the ground or the peak of your roof; more importantly, it aims itself as you see in the accompanying video.

 

BTW, the dish is heated to melt snow or evaporate rain – that’s why mine has an icicle beard.

On reflection, not surprising that this dish does a robotic install; it talks to satellites launched by rockets which guide themselves to barge landings for reuse and it’s a cousin of the almost self-driving Tesla.

There is a kit for putting the dish on the ridgeline of your house which uses bricks to weigh down legs draped over the ridgeline. If you can get to the ridgeline of your house, you don’t have to make holes in the roof to put the dish there. Starlink has another kit for mounting the dish on a pole and a kit for sealing around a hole you may have to make in your house to get the combination power and data wire (power over ethernet) inside. I found a vent so didn’t have to do that.

WiFi setup

Starlink comes with a vanilla WiFi router. You can set the name of the network and password from a smartphone app, but you can’t do any sophisticated management of the router itself. If you do need more capability, you can plug whatever wireless router you have been using into the AUX port on the Starlink router, retain whatever management instructions you set up previously, and also continue to use any direct ethernet connections you made from your old router. I have a fairly sophisticated ORBI setup to reach the corners of my house but just had to plug the ORBI base router into the Starlink router and the base and satellite ORBI routers continued to function as usual.

Beta test update

Last week when I wrote about my beta experience, I was having about three outages an hour averaging about 16 seconds each. Not a surprise in what is advertised as the “Better Than Nothing” Beta; but, because of these interruptions, I wasn’t using Starlink for Zooming. However, since then Starlink has realigned existing satellites, launched 60 more, and I have moved my dish away from some obstruction. Now less than two interruptions an hour with an average duration of eleven seconds. This is as good as either the DSL service I get from Consolidated or my wireless ISP. According to the Starlink app, in the last twelve hours my view of a passing satellite was obstructed for two minutes, there were no satellites for my dish to see for 12 seconds, and downtime to make adjustments to the beta service totaled two minutes. I do plan to move the dish again; but, even if I don’t, Starlink is launching many more satellites which should make both the obstruction and no-satellite-available problems go away. Beta-induced outages should end with the end of the beta (summer?).

Starlink is working flawlessly as far as we can see for streaming. I am now using it for Zoom and Skype but the real test of that’ll be tomorrow when I have some business zooms.

See also:

Starlink Broadband Passes “Better Than Nothing” Beta Test

Is Starlink the Tesla of Broadband Access?

February 04, 2021

Starlink Broadband Passes “Better Than Nothing” Beta Test

May become the access answer for many at the end of the road.

DishyThe icicle dripping dish in the picture is the antenna for Starlink, a satellite-based broadband service from SpaceX – one of Elon Musk’s other companies. It came Saturday just before the snow arrived here in Stowe, VT. It’s heated so I didn’t have to shovel it out and it’s working despite its frozen beard.

The pandemic has shown us that its socially irresponsible to leave any family without broadband access. That lesson hasn’t been lost on our elected representatives. Gobs of money are going to broadband in the next year. Gobs of money have gone to broadband before with disappointingly slow progress towards universal access.

Depending on how quickly SpaceX can scale the service from today’s limited availability and fix Beta reliability issues, Starlink could be an Internet answer for many currently unserved and underserved locations in America and around the world before the end of 2021. It’s spookily easy to install; it’s blazingly fast compared to anything but a fiber connection. It’s more than adequate for email, uploads and downloads today. It’s adequate for streaming. Frequent short interruptions, planned and unplanned, make it unstable for video conferencing and Voice over IP (VoIP). These are plainly disclosed in the marketing information for the Beta and should be fixed in the months to come; but seeing will be believing.

Installation: Starlink pretty much installs itself. It’s fun to watch. You put the dish in its stand (hidden under the snow), run a wire into your house (that was the hard part for me), plug it in, stand back and watch the dish search the sky and orient itself to the proper position. It quickly figures out where it is and downloads the current satellite schedule from the first satellite it talks to. Once positioned, the dish stops moving and its electronics to passing satellites. Won’t work without a good view of the northern sky in the northern hemisphere). Roof and long pole mount kits are available.

You use an app on your smartphone to set the id and password for your network and you’re online. The same app tells you how well the service is doing as shown in the picture nearby. Screenshot_20210203-170525_Starlink

Speed: Starlink is blazing fast. I’ve been getting speeds between 30 and 130 Mbps (Megabits per second) for downloads and between 20 and 40 Mbps for uploads. This leaves DSL and the older geostationary-satellite based services in the dust, is faster than you can get from most wireless ISPs, and compares favorably with most cable and/or fiber services. Other than running a server farm in your basement or minting bitcoin, this is all the speed you could possibly need for work from home today. Obviously at this speed you can stream many different videos to many different devices at the same time.

Latency: Latency is the time it takes for a message (technically an IP packet) to get to a server somewhere and for the reply to get back to you. If latency is high, web pages build very slowly and, even more important, voice over IP (VoIP) has very poor quality and videoconferencing may be impossible. Latency is the Achilles-heal of geostationary satellite services like HughesNet. Their satellites are so far away that each packet takes a long time even at the speed of light to go up and down. Starlink uses low earth orbit satellites (LEOS) so the signal has a negligible distance to travel. Typical latency is between 40 and 60 milliseconds, plenty good for conferencing, gaming, and even most high frequency stock trading.

Reliability: Starlink says: “During Beta… there will … be brief periods of no connectivity at all.” Right now my experience and that of most other users I’ve heard from is that there are brief periods of non-connectivity about three times per hour. These averaged 18 seconds in a twelve-hour test I ran. According to the app, in the last twelve hours my dish’s view of the sky was obstructed for four minutes, I lost four minutes due to Beta downtime, and there were 15 seconds when no satellites were available. However, measured from my computer, there was more down time than just eight minutes and fifteen seconds. For comparison, I got about one interruption per hour with an average duration of 6 seconds while using my wireless ISP.

These outages aren’t noticeable while doing email and file transfer and web surfing. They usually don’t interfere with streaming video, but they do keep me from using my Starlink connection for Zoom or Skype.

[update: 5 days later Starlink has reconfigured the existing satellites and added 60 more; I've moved my dish slightly to reduce obstruction. Interruptions less than 2/hour. I am using Starlink for Skype and Zoom].

It’s quite possible that, once I can dig my dish out, I’ll be able to move it to solve the obstruction problem. It may also be solved for me as Starlink launches more satellites. They are planning to launch 120 more tomorrow on two of SpaceX’s reusable rockets! Beta services do require adjustment so it’s credible but not certain that these interruptions will be gone by summer.

In a weather emergency, satellite-based services will stay up when lines and poles topple. As long as you have power, you’ll have connectivity. Even when cellular fails because the towers have fallen down or run out of standby power, solar-powered satellites will be happily spinning.

Price: To take part in the Beta, I had to buy a $499 dish and other equipment (actually $581.94 with tax and shipping) and agree to pay $99/month plus taxes for service. However, that’s less than the price of most smartphones and not much more than cellphone monthly charges. There is no contract and there is 30-day nofault money back guarantee on the equipment.  I expect there will be higher and lower prices available for different tiers of service and that competition will bring the equipment cost down. Richard Branson is also launching tiny satellites although has no service based on them yet and Jeff Bezos says he will have such a service.

Future proofing: Absent the outages, Starlink is more than adequate for most home and work from home use today. However, some fiber providers are offering gigabit service (1000Mbps) today. The fact that these speeds are being sold means that applications will develop that need them. It’s not the end of the world if you have to scrap a $600 investment in a few years; but will Starlink be able to keep up? They say:

“During beta users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system…

“As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically. For latency, we expect to achieve 16ms to 19ms by summer 2021.”

Elon Musk has talked about being able to offer Gigabit service over Starlink and described the technology that will be used to provide it (basically laser communication between satellites which is only in the experimental stage now).

Conclusion: There is no doubt that Beta Starlink is “better than nothing.” It is also clearly better than the older satellite services. For many it will be better than available DSL. Starlink is faster than most wireless ISPs although their technology is improving as well. To use a wireless ISP, you need a good and reasonably close view of their antenna; to use Starlink, you need to see the right part of the sky. Location will often be the decider between these alternatives.

Starlink is NOT better than high-end fiber or fiber/coax offered by cable companies. Where population is sufficiently dense, fiber will remain the connection of choice; I will get a fiber connection as soon as I can. But fiber won’t be everywhere we need connectivity for years if ever. If Starlink can scale, it can be a big part of bringing all rural America online.

You can find out if you can be part of the beta by clicking  CHECK AVAILABILITY.

See also:

Starlink Broadband Service - More on the Beta plus Exciting Video

Satellite Broadband Access – OK If You Have To

Why Satellite Internet Access Sucks

Is Starlink the Tesla of Broadband Access?

 

February 01, 2021

BOLO Injected for Spiky

Internal forces on high alert.

Vaccination Day +1: I planned on some cross-country skiing but didn’t have much energy. “What’s going on?” I asked my Chief of Intrapersonal Security.

“We just got an urgent BOLO for Spiky,“ he said. “Really good description of the bugger. We’re busy building spike-pullers, spike-blunters, spike-barriers, and spike-dissolvers. No time to play.”

OK, I thought, I’ll do some writing. But my head was fuzzy. “Hey, could we get a little more blood to the brain?” I asked the Chief.

“No way. Phagocytes are getting trained up close and personal to recognize infected cells. Can’t distract them with too much circulation.”

“What happens if they find an infected cell?” I asked.

“You don’t want to know.”

“Look, I said. “Mary’s got a long honey-do list for me. I gotta have enough energy at least for chores.”

“Tell her we invoked the Antibody Production Act. No chores!”

V Day +2: I’m fine.

“Hey Chief, feels like you guys must be done. Any problem if I get back with my life?”

“We’re still on high alert and training but you’re cleared to go. Be sure to get the chores done in the next 26 days.”

“26 days? Why?”

“We’re planning full contact war games for when you get the second shot. You might wanna plan on a day off.”

January 28, 2021

Flying Elephants Aren’t Pretty

Socialism for the rich increases inequality.

In a New York Times oped Thomas Friedman writes:

“…We’re in the middle of a pandemic that has crushed jobs and small businesses — but the stock market is soaring. That’s not right. That’s elephants flying. I always get worried watching elephants fly. It usually doesn’t end well.”

Friedman is complaining – correctly IMO – that much of what is sold as recession relief is actually socialism for the rich at the expense of everyone else and at great long-term danger to the economy.

The economic arguments in Friedman’s oped come from a Wall Street Journal essay titled The Rescues Ruining Capitalism by Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management and an iconoclast among bankers who are generally in favor of easy money and wealthfare. Sharma writes:

“Easy money and constant stimulus have undermined the basic dynamics of the free market. We’ve paid the price in low growth and productivity, falling entrepreneurship and rising inequality.

“…A growing body of research shows that constant government stimulus has been a major contributor to many of modern capitalism’s most glaring ills. Easy money fuels the rise of giant firms and, along with crisis bailouts, keeps alive heavily indebted “zombie” firms at the expense of startups, which typically drive innovation. All of this leads to low productivity—the prime contributor to the slowdown in economic growth and a shrinking of the pie for everyone.

“At the same time, easy money has juiced up the value of stocks, bonds and other financial assets, which benefits mainly the rich, inflaming social resentment over growing inequalities in income and wealth. It should not be surprising that millennials and Gen Z are growing disillusioned with this distorted form of capitalism and say that they prefer socialism. The irony is that the rising culture of government dependence is, in fact, a form of socialism—for the rich and powerful.”

Neither Friedman or Sharma is critical of the immediate relief delivered directly to workers in the great recession or now during the pandemic. Neither has sympathy for Republicans’ new-found fear of deficits now that Ds will get credit for the largesse. Their quarrel is with the bailout of banks and large corporations, the bailouts which continue even after the immediate crisis is over. The Fed kept interest rates artificially low all the way from 2008 (TARP) through the boom which preceded the pandemic. The credit subsidies kept zombie corporations – companies which don’t earn enough to pay their debts – alive with subsidized credit. The zombies absorbed resources which would have been available to dynamic startups if only the zombies had been allowed to fail.

As an aside which neither of them mentions, “free credit” from the Fed competes with capital which savers have accumulated. Those who’ve saved a nest egg have not been able to earn reasonable interest from it. Moreover, cheap money tips the scale against labor by making it much cheaper to buy a new machine than hire more workers.

Sharma writes:

“The idea of government as the balm for all crises is appealing in the short term, but it ignores the unintended consequences. Without entrepreneurial risk and creative destruction, capitalism doesn’t work. Disruption and regeneration, the heart of the system, grind to a halt. The deadwood never falls from the tree. The green shoots are nipped in the bud.”

Winter has a purpose in the woods. We don’t try to prop up all the limbs which snow and wind will bring down. If we did, we’d have increasingly unhealthy trees. We wouldn’t have the new growth we need for a resilient forest.  An economy needs recessions even though we want to protect people from the worst consequences.

Modern economic theory is that governments can print money without apparent economic consequences so why not keep doing it. The Fed says “Look, there’s no inflation. Maybe we need to print more money.” But there is inflation! The inflation is in the stock market. The inflation is in the price of mansions (although maybe not urban condos anymore). What the Fed is really saying is that we’ve found a way to let the prices of some assets go up without having any wage inflation. You peasants really ought to be happy that the rich can use their increasing wealth to buy more of your labor without the inconvenience of having to pay more for it.

Sharma concludes:

“When the pandemic passes, authorities need to shift out of rescue mode and start weaning capitalism off easy money and bailouts. They have to recognize how heavy government intervention is distorting the price signals that make free markets efficient in allocating capital. Otherwise, they will continue creating more zombies and monopolies, widening inequality, undermining productivity and slowing growth. For all their good intentions, they will continue to feed the dysfunction that is alienating younger generations and deforming capitalism.”

Otherwise beware of falling elephants.

For a dystopian view of how the printing money strategy can turn out, see Dystopia, The Novel.

See also:

Don’t Bail Out the Oil Industry (or the Banks)

We’ve Been T*RPed

January 25, 2021

#Newnormal: The Great Repurposing

Don’t build new.

Remember soaring city rents and shortages of housing and office space. Forget about those. That was yesterday. Downtown rents are dropping like highspeed elevators. Some urbanites are fleeing for cheaper and safer and lower tax climes. Surviving businesses are looking for ways to break their leases. Business hotels are renting themselves out as homeless shelters. Downtown retail and restaurants have a precarious future and you should be glad if you don’t own a shopping mall. Small colleges were folding before the pandemic in rural and urban areas alike; the failures have accelerated leaving dorms, classrooms, offices, and event spaces on the market. IMO these trends will continue post pandemic.

We all used to take up too much space. We still need homes, of course. May even need an extra room or two because we’re working from those homes (#WfH). But we no longer need a space of our own in an office building somewhere else. Sure, there’ll be (some) in-person meeting in the future and some collaborative projects; but those’ll be in a much smaller office or in shared space Many of us used to leave both our office space and our home space empty while we took frequent business trips. We know now that we don’t need nearly so many trips and homes away from home to stay in. We’ll travel more than we’re doing now, especially to see family and see the world, but far fewer meetings and trade shows on the other side of the country or the ocean. Frugal businesses – the survivors – aren’t going to pay for them.

Hard to see why anyone would build a new office building when need for space is contracting as more and more employees work from home more of the time. If tremendous growth is forcing expansion, there are great bargains available in existing buildings. Even if space on the market doesn’t exactly meet the need, buying or renting something at ultra-cheap prices and refitting is the way to go. Even if there are penalties for canceling a project which is already far along, the economic justification needs rethinking in the new normal. Those who had the forethought to build flexibly with movable partitions are already benefitting. Any refits should be done with our new knowledge of how quickly things can change.

What about new residences? There is still a shortage of “affordable” housing in urban areas. However, existing urban rentals and condos are getting cheaper by the month. Rents will fall even faster when the various eviction moratoriums end. Landlords haven’t had any incentive to reduce rents which are being paid by government rather than the tenants or aren’t being paid at all. People who work from home can move away from the city. Those who choose to stay will have a better selection of housing. Should there still be demand for urban housing, let the conversions begin. The place to start is hotels and dorms. Office buildings are next.

We are only limited by our imagination. @RoxieMoxie tweeted this very smart reply to a tweet of mine: “I can see a software company turning an office building into a ‘company town’ where workers can live near office areas with high-speed scanners/copiers yet do most of their work in their own residential units. Fitness clubs, parklets, etc.”

We are only limited by our imagination… and by zoning laws. The best thing governments can do to speed the recovery is a great loosening of zoning laws so conversions can proceed without endless delay. In some cities changing offices to residences can be near impossible because of zoning. Restrictive zoning has been used far too long by the #NIMBY crowd - liberal and conservative - to keep “them” out of “our” neighborhood. We have a good opportunity to promote both social justice and economic recovery at the same time by removing these obstacles to repurposing.

There may be reason to build new factories to produce new goods or to produce goods further from less populous cities, but repurposing is an option to gain manufacturing space as well. Shopping malls and their huge parking lots are available throughout the country There is a market for new residences away from the cities. Dormitory, office, and hotel repurposing will supply much of the multifamily demand; but single-family houses are being built and selling for good prices here in Vermont. Many of our new residents still work for the same employers; they’re just not taking up office space anymore.

Those who don’t adapt to the #newnormal will perish economically. Sticking to a plan that made sense pre-pandemic may be the dumbest thing anyone can do now. Taking advantage of the way things are and the way things are gonna be is the formula for success for a family, a business, a government, or a non-profit. NOT building new is almost always the right answer. Repurposing is the “plastics” of today.

More posts on the new normal are at https://blog.tomevslin.com/newnormal/.

January 21, 2021

Is Starlink the Tesla of Broadband Access?

I have a chance to find out.

Starlink is satellite internet access from SpaceX, one of Elon Musk’s other companies. If it lives up to its hype, it will cure the problem of broadband availability in rural areas although affordability will still be an issue.

Most satellite-based Internet access sucks (that’s a technical term). If based on geostationary satellites (ones you can point a dish at), the distance to the satellite is so great that the round-trip time for data is forever; this problem is called latency. High latency doesn’t matter much if you’re uploading or downloading files; it’s incredibly annoying if you’re web surfing; and pretty much unusable for VoIP and especially for Skyping and Zooming. Technical details at Satellite Broadband Access – OK If You Have To.

Services like Iridium use LEOS (Low Earth Orbit Satellites) so they don’t have a latency problem; but, for technical reasons, they have speeds that you thought you left behind when you stopped doing dialup – and they’re very expensive to boot. Way better than nothing if you’re in the middle of the ocean and need to see a weather forecast or send an SOS but not a reasonable alternative for home or office use.

Starlink also uses LEOS but has much, much greater bandwidth than any other low-orbit service, at least in part because SpaceX has used its rockets to launch swarms of tiny satellites. And, according to an email I just got today (an Inauguration Day present?), Starlink is now available in limited supply in my service area (North Central Vermont).

“During beta users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all. 

“As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically. For latency, we expect to achieve 16ms to 19ms by summer 2021.”

A latency of 40ms is acceptable for almost all uses except very high-speed gaming and stock trading. 16-19ms (milliseconds) is what you’d expect from cable.

The speed is considerably less than the GB/s service advertised by some fiber providers. Most of us don’t need anywhere near that speed today. But uses will be found for it (3D conferencing with avatars?) because it exists. Remains to be seen if Starlink can scale to these speeds,

Reliability should be better than cable or even service from a wireless ISP. So long as you have electricity from some source, you’re not going to lose your Internet access because of a storm or other local emergency.

So what’s the rub? Price, at least for now.

To take part in the Beta, I had to buy a $499 dish and other equipment (actually $581.94 with tax and shipping) and agree to pay $99/month plus taxes for service. However, that’s less than the price of most smartphones and not much more than cellphone monthly charges. There is no contract and there is 30-day nofault money back guarantee on the equipment.  I expect there will be higher and lower prices available for different tiers of service and that competition will bring the equipment cost down. Richard Branson is also launching tiny satellites although has no service based on them yet

If this all works and service is available nationwide, there should be no reason why any child in rural areas can’t go to school online or why any of us can’t benefit from telemedicine. Affordability is a problem we can afford to fix – not by subsidizing SpaceX and eventual competitors  but with direct aid to low income households. Many users will have offsetting savings from canceling their old-fashioned phone service and from cancelling satellite TV since streaming video will rock at these speeds.

Rural economies are already benefitting from urban-flight – at least those rural areas which have decent broadband. The cost of this service is miniscule if you’re already buying a house in Vermont to work from. If you’re an early adopter moving to a rural area, you’ll save lots of money overall because houses are cheaper where there is no good broadband today. Welcome to Vermont!

If Spacelink pans out (and it’s still an if), it will be a greater contribution to the common good than Teslas. I’ll let you know how the Beta goes.

You can find out if you can be part of the beta by clicking  CHECK AVAILABILITY.

See also:

Satellite Broadband Access – OK If You Have To

Why Satellite Internet Access Sucks

January 18, 2021

#Newnormal: Will Workers or Employers Pocket the Profit from #WFH Productivity?

It’s not a zero-sum game.

A Fortune newsletter by Aaron Pressman quoted my post on the 50 hour family work week and then asked: “Trillion dollar question: Will workers share in the savings from remote work?”

His skepticism is illustrated with a story. Last week Fortune published a commentary by Drew Houston, the cofounder and CEO of Dropbox. Dropbox, in case you missed it, is one of the services which has helped to make work from home (WfH) practical. Not surprisingly, Drew is a WfH fan:

“We’ve gone through a one-way door. The shift to distributed work is the biggest transformation to knowledge work since the term was invented in 1959. Its impact will be comparable to the rise of mobile and the cloud. Distributed work will unlock the potential of these technologies in the same way the highway system unlocked the potential of cars and ultimately reconfigured modern life.”

Pressman comments:

“Ironically, the day after we ran Houston’s essay, Houston’s company executed one of the old-fashioned, less desirable ways to become more productive: It laid off 315 people, or more than 10% of its workforce. ‘Our Virtual First policy means we require fewer resources to support our in-office environment, so we’re scaling back that investment and redeploying those resources,’ Houston wrote in a memo to employees.”

If the 315 people were engaged solely in supporting the office infrastructure, then this layoff doesn’t mean that Dropbox is doing the layoff because the people who work at home are more productive. This layoff is like terminating the office lease. Drew, himself, is somewhat ambiguous. In the same memo to employees, he says that their focus on “Virtual First” (which I think is more a description of their product line than a description of the way they work) requires them to defund initiatives which don’t directly add to this initiative.

Regardless of exactly why Dropbox had its layoff, who will profit from the increased productivity is still a trillion-dollar question. We can pick away at it:

These gains go to the employee initially.

  • The dollars and time spent commuting.
  • At least some of the cost of daycare.
  • The cost in space/and or dollars of having to live close to work.
  • Eating lunch out.
  • Flexibility
  • Dressing below the waist.

And these to the employer.

  • The cost of owning or renting office space.
  • The cost of people devoted to maintenance of the office space (see Dropbox above).
  • Any subsidy including parking spaces supporting commuting.
  • The need to provide free coffee etc.

The savings above are big so will make both WfH employees and employers wealthier.

The elephant in the converted spare bedroom is who gets the productivity savings.

Pressman quotes a study Dropbox commissioned at The Economist which concluded that workers lose 28% of their productivity because of distractions and says this agrees with my estimate that 25 hours at home is equivalent to a 9-5 day at the office (nit, he somewhat misinterpreted the study). The trillion dollars of productivity he writes about is this lost 28% in the US.

I claimed that workers will benefit by either working less or earning more. Pressman cites the layoff at Dropbox as an indication that employers will simply expect more from each employee and lay off those who are not working very well from home. If it happens as Pressman suspects, then employees will still work 35 or 40 hours even though they’re home; they’ll accomplish more; the employer will be more profitable.

The new normal will differ industry be industry depending both on how easy it is to measure productivity in an industry and the balance between jobs to fill and employees available to fill them. Since physical proximity to the office is not required, employers get to pick from a nationwide (or worldwide!) pool of applicants. On the other hand, workers can apply for jobs at companies anywhere. This is globalization without green cards.

WfH is not a zero-sum game. Both workers and employers benefit. The environment benefits from less commuting.  Housing affordability benefits from less concentration. Children will see their parents more. But the benefits will be uneven and we must be more sensitive to a growing economic divide than we were during round one of globalization.

See also:

#Newnormal: The 50 Hour Family Work Week

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

January 13, 2021

#Newnormal: Mass Transit

Rush hours are history.

Covid has given mass transit systems an opportunity to reinvent themselves to serve the new normal. This opportunity is mandatory. If they don’t reinvent, they will wither away; downtown districts will suffer and an opportunity to make the huge pandemic drop in energy use permanent will be squandered.

Mass transit infrastructure – like many utilities and like highways – has always been designed for huge twice daily peaks. The peaks determine how much track is needed; how many tunnels; how many busses, light rail, and subway cars. For almost twenty hours each day, much of that capacity is idle. In rush hour in many cities the vehicles are full in one direction and nearly empty in the other. The time between the beginning of the morning peak and end of the evening peak means that two shifts of workers must be hired even though there isn’t sixteen hours of work for them to do.

That was then; this now.

The successful new normal transit system has more frequent service throughout the day than it used to and much, much less rush hour capacity.

Many people are going to continue to work exclusively from home. Others will come into “the office” or into town for meetings some of the time. The idea of an office as a place where everybody needs to be 9-5 is history. Of course there will still be many people whose jobs require them to work away from home; but their hours don’t have to be divided into the traditional three shifts. High frequency transit service throughout the day both enables flexible hours and encourages using mass transit instead of cars even when flexibility is needed.

The successful new normal transit system provides door-to-door service. If I have to get into my car, drive to a terminal, pay to park, leave my car idle for the day, walk a very long distance or take an expensive taxi when I get near work, and then reverse the process at the end of the day, I’m just going to take my car into the city. Rush hour won’t be a problem for cars, either, in the new normal. Algorithms like those used by Uber make it possible to dispatch small transit vehicles like a ride-share service at the ends of the transit network. Transit systems can also work with existing ride-sharing service. The objective is to make it so convenient to take transit for a partial WFH family that two cars aren’t necessary. Autonomous vehicles will have a big role to play here in the future but not significant for a couple of years.

The successful new normal transit system has smaller vehicles.

Smaller vehicles allow more frequent service and even on demand service; they also reduce energy costs. The hulking big busses were necessary for rush hour service and used to run three-quarters empty the rest of the time.

The successful new normal transit system depends on riders feeling secure.

Not much a transit system can do about hastening vaccination, but they do depend on it. One more reason why public policy may have to require vaccination. New vehicles will have to provide better air quality; frequent cleaning of vehicles, which most transit systems have already initiated, makes them more attractive but doesn’t do much to eliminate spread of airborne Covid. Crime is up in major city transit systems as well as in the cities themselves.  Smaller vehicles will help with transit crime, but law enforcement is also required. During the pandemic I hear there are more homeless people living or camping in busses and subway cars. The problems of the homeless must be addressed but allowing them to live in transit vehicles will help keep those vehicles empty of other riders.

The successful new normal transit system cancels capital plans based on the way things used to be.

All those new vehicles planned or on order: cancel them if you can. Without the need to service rush hours, there are already too many vehicles and too much outstanding debt. Smaller vehicles will be what’s needed. The new tunnel; the expanded track: probably not needed any more. Plan for frequency; plan for end-to-end service; plan for agility; plan for efficient fuel use.

The successful new normal transit system helps the new normal downtown develop.

There are already less cars going to city centers this year than last. If a reinvented transit system can help assure that a flood of cars doesn’t come back, cities can create more open space for walking and biking. City rents are plummeting. Office buildings will be repurposed as residential keeping downward pressure on rents and making the city affordable for those who want to live there. Ironically, when they must make a visit to an office or a client, city dwellers may be going to the burbs. But remember we now have frequent transit service with good connections at both ends. The transit service will benefit from having riders going in both directions at all times of day. The urbanites won’t need cars.

The successful new normal transit system will allow us to continue energy use and emission at the low levels the pandemic forced us to without hindering economic recovery. The best is yet to come.

See also:

#Newnormal: The 50 Hour Family Work Week

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

Forward to a New Normal

January 10, 2021

Pelosi Must Get Impeachment to the Senate Now

Republicans should demand no less.

According to a front-page story in The New York Times, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t plan a vote of impeachment until Tuesday and then is considering NOT sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate until after Trump is already out of office.  

Pelosi correctly called Trump “deranged, unhinged, dangerous”. How can she possibly justify any delay in getting him out of office? Pelosi contacted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about her concern that Trump holds the codes for a nuclear strike. That call may have been improper and her publicizing it was dubious; but, given her justified concern, how can she delay giving the Senate the opportunity to remove him? This is scarcely a time for politics as usual.

Those Republicans in the House who care more for country than party should be announcing their support for the articles of impeachment and pressing for an immediate vote. How could the Speaker resist that? Senate Republicans can’t properly commit to voting for removal from office yet since they  will be serving as a court which must rule on the indictment bought by the House, but they can certainly make clear they are open to removing him ASAP and don’t want any claims of procedural delay by the outgoing Majority Leader to deny them a chance to vote.

In the past Senators have been reluctant to overturn the results of an election; they should be. But removing Trump after he has already been fired by the electorate doesn’t have that problem. No President in our history has ever been removed from office by the Senate. No one has earned that distinction more than Trump.

If impeachment is voted by the House (tomorrow – Monday - would be a good time) and if enough Republican Senators make clear that they will vote to remove him, there is some possibility that he will resign as Nixon did. That would spare him the ignominy of being removed, which is a shame. However, the country’s main concern must be getting him the hell out of there before he can do any further harm.

There couldn’t be a better time to write your Congress person and Senators regardless of whether they’re Democrats or Republicans. They should support immediate impeachment in the House; immediate forwarding to the Senate; and a fast vote there. The time for grandstanding is long past; the country needs Trump out of the White House.

See also:

Trump Should be Impeached Now

January 07, 2021

Trump Should be Impeached Now

Congress should do its job.

It is dangerous to leave Trump in office a moment longer than necessary. His behavior must be censored, and part of an impeachment can be a ban on his holding office in the future.

Minority Leader Schumer (he’s still minority leader until Inauguration) and Speaker Pelosi say they will consider impeachment if the Trump’s cabinet doesn’t act to remove him as “incapacitated” under the 25th Amendment. Waiting for that to happen is a bad idea. Congress was attacked. Congress should act. Republicans have a shot at redemption by cooperating in a swift process.

During a time of constitutional crises, it is important to follow the Constitution closely. The 25th amendment was passed to deal with an “incapacitated” President. Trump has too much capacity for further harm. He should be removed because he has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors”  - exactly what impeachment was meant to deal with. It would be bad precedent to have the 25th amendment used as a punishment or for what could be taken as a political purpose. Impeachment is appropriate. Two simple counts would be fine: attempting to induce election fraud as demonstrated in his phone call with the Georgia Secretary of State and fomenting insurrection in his instructions to his supporters.

If Trump attempts something truly crazy during the impeachment process, the cabinet should be prepared to use the 25th amendment as a backstop.

Part of the longer-term constitutional problem we face is that Congress prefers to avoid action. Why get yourself pinned down by a vote when you can fall back on presidential orders, court rulings, or reams of regulation by unelected bureaucrats? Why go through impeachment if you can get the cabinet to do your job?

It will a monstrous defeat for all of us if Congress evades using the self-defense weapon given to it in the Constitution precisely for situations when the co-equal branch is under attack.

BTW, I voted for Trump in 2016 after opposing him in the primaries. Thought he was the lesser of two evils. That’s something I have to live with.

January 06, 2021

#Newnormal: The 50 Hour Family Work Week

Work from home (#WFH) has the potential to restore better family life for some without reducing net income. With two parents working a total of 50 hours at home, they’ll be able both to care for their kids and be as productive as they were when nominally working 80 combined hours in the office and commuting to boot. They won’t be materially worse off either. Both parents can have careers. Even single parents will benefit from a shorter WFH week, although certainly not as much.

Why do I think 25 hours/ week is the equivalent of a 50-hour week (counting commuting)?

  • Given a nine-to five schedule with an hour for lunch, the 40 hour work week was only 35 to begin with.
  • As an ex-CEO, I think that at least ten hours of each workweek go to socialization, surfing the internet, checking with the spouse or checking up on the children, chatting on smartphones etc. (Mary thinks only five).
  • Meetings and travel to meetings waste a huge amount of time and money. One reason that Zooming appears not to have reduced productivity is that many of the meetings weren’t productive to begin with.
  • Office space and often parking are expenses to the employer but they are not income to the worker. If office space and all its attendant costs can be drastically reduced, employers can afford to pay more dollars in salary for the same productivity.
  • Commuting expense including perhaps even the second car, daycare, clothing and dry-cleaning bills, and paid before and after school activities whose purpose is to supervise school age kids are all expenses which go away when parents can work from home. Even if the WFH employee has less gross taxable income, he or she will have more cash at the end of each month.

It’s a slam dunk even if Mary is right! BTW, employers will benefit in many ways if they learn to manage by actual productivity rather than by time in the office. Subject for another blog another day.

The social benefits of two parents who can participate in child-rearing are enormous. Both still get to have careers. Much less childcare needs to be outsourced. There will be more time to meet with teachers and make sure they are doing their job. It will be possible to shoo children out to play rather than ferry them to playdates when there are parents at home and more parents with eyes on the street. Empty homes are dangerous to kids, especially adolescents. Schools won’t have to try to take over so many parental teaching chores; and parents can help with homework more.

It can be better than the Leave it to Beaver days with its stereotypes of the homemaker and the breadwinner. If Dad works from home, it’ll be hard to say I can’t take kiddo to the doctor for his Covid shot or help with the birthday party.  Some families may still choose to have one breadwinner working 50 hours; but, if that 50-hour week is at home, there will be plenty of income for the whole family. People who want more money, particularly those without children, will be able to work two jobs in 50 hours or at least deliver 50 hours equivalent of productivity to their employers and make gobs of money.

Single parents will still have a very tough job. They may still need daycare when working from home if they have preschool children but will be better able to match working hours with the time children are home from school.

A danger in this utopian WFH future is that it widens the gap between those who can work from home and those who can’t – a category which includes most essential workers. There must be higher hourly wages for those who must work away from home. I believe that their workweek will eventually become 25 hours as part of the new normal; more on that in another post.

If COVID gets us off the too-many-hours-wasted-away-from home-treadmill, it will at least have a silver lining.

See also:

#Newnormal: Mass Transit

#Newnormal: Will Workers or Employers Pocket the Profit from #WFH Productivity?

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

Forward to a New Normal

January 04, 2021

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

Changes family life, housing, daycare, climate, and infrastructure needs.

Not everyone can work from home (WFH), of course. But the huge shift to WFH will change life for everyone, even the essential many who still need to commute to their jobs and will be paid more for the extra effort. As new legislatures convene in the new year, they will try to spend billions to restore the old normal and solve problems which WFH is solving for us. We can’t let them do that. There will be new problems of the new normal which do need solutions.

The long-term effects of WFH are:

  • Obviously fuel usage and associated emissions are way down. Gasoline sales are down 13% from 2019 to 2020 according to the US Energy Information Administration. That’s like taking one of eight cars off the road.
  • The combination of WFH and more flexible hours means less rush-hour congestion. Although we have a huge backlog of repair projects for existing roads, bridges, rails, and airports, increasing rush-hour capacity should be on hold. I would’ve sworn the NY metro area needed a third train tunnel from NY to NJ. Maybe it doesn’t. If the Biden Administration passes a huge infrastructure bill, it must be for the priority list of the new normal including universal high-speed broadband.
  • Less rush-hour congestion means that most mass transit systems have more busses, light transit vehicles, and subway cars than they need since they had to have fleets capable of handling rush hour. As people lose their fear of contagion, mass transit can come back by providing better schedules around the clock with the workforce and capacity it already has. Time to cancel orders for the capacity that was needed yesterday.
  • A massive repurposing of real estate will happen. When I commuted to work, I had a house, an office, and frequent hotel rooms I occupied on business trips while both my home and office were vacant. If I were mainly working from homing and Zooming to meetings, many of those offices and hotel rooms would no longer needed. This dislocation can either result in hollowed out downtowns or, with some creativity. the buildings can be repurposed as residences. We’ve seen the start of this during the pandemic with hotels converted to homeless shelters. Government can hurt this effort by bailing out the owners of buildings no longer needed for their original purpose or can help with permissive rezoning to make sure repurposing can happen and there is some market for the stranded assets.
  • Daycare at an affordable price was an Achilles’ heel of our all-parents-working economy. Daycare centers now have vacancies! If parents are working from home, the time they used to spend commuting and communing around the office coffee machine can be used to keep an eye on pre-school kids without loss of productivity. Yes, I know which gender ends up with most of the keeping-an-eye-on chores in most households; but us Dads’ll have less of an excuse when we’re around as much as Mom is. Very seriously, this is a help but not a solution for single working parents. Parents who must still commute to work (most essential workers) will benefit from more availability of daycare. They must be paid more to make daycare and their other commuting expenses affordable. Government should not subsidize no-longer needed daycare slots; that will only hurt the daycare providers who have enough business to prosper.
  • For at least the intermediate term, the world will be way ahead of UN targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction. Not only are people driving less, there will be much less new construction since new rush-hour capacity is no longer needed and because many people will no longer be occupying a home, an office, and many business hotel rooms. Construction, particularly the production of concrete, releases huge amounts of GHGs. Leisure travel will probably come back; business travel probably not very much. Aviation fuel usage will decline. Even under pessimistic scenarios, the doomsday clock has been set back far enough so that longer-term solutions and mitigations for climate change can be more effective at less cost than the many subsidies and mandates of the Green New Deal.

This is a time of enormous challenge and opportunity. We’ll blow it if we try to put the old normal back together again or persist in solving yesterdays’ problems. We’ll certainly blow it if we persist in trying to preserve asset values for the wealthy. Much of what passes for “bipartisan” pandemic relief already looks more like wealthfare than help for those who need it.

There is an automatic WFH bonus for the families who now don’t have to spend time and money paying the expenses of commuting; we will not be able to make minimum wage apply to them; they will be measured by productivity. We need a much higher minimum wage for those commuting workers who’ve just shown how essential they are and who work where hours can be measured. The extra cost of higher wages to essential workers will be a reasonable expense to us in the WFH crowd when we use their services directly and indirectly.

See also:

If There Were No Welfare, There’d be No Need for a Minimum Wage

Celebrate Labor Day and Essential Workers by Substantially Raising Minimum Wage

Forward to a New Normal

#Newnormal: Mass Transit

January 01, 2021

Grandson Jack's Good Riddance to 2020

Jack2020


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