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

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