The FCC and Set-top Boxes

The dramatic headline “The FCC is going to war over set-top boxes” brought back memories of the time I was dealing with regulatory issues in the world of entertainment.   I think some things will never change as long as there is big money involved and there exists the institution of lobbying.  The battle to change the existing paradigm regarding processing and delivery of entertainment content to consumer eyes from signals that are delivered to the home by the cable companies, and to a certain extent satellite TV companies, has been ongoing for years.  It is the traditional television content delivery guys trying to protect their turf against the home entertainment guys who want to expand the reach of their systems and control how the consumers interface with the cable TV guy’s signals.   If you think that the opposition to the current cable TV signal handling paradigm in the home comes from organizations that are trying to protect the consumer and have their goodwill at heart, think again.  It is companies like Google and Sony who are on the other side, with their own business interests at heart.

It is all about business and money at the end of the day.  And I have to throw up my hands and laugh at the absurdity of all of it, because all of this fuss, and the use of significant monetary resources, is about entertainment and the distraction of the population, something far removed from the more basic needs of the people at large.  While reading the article above I came upon this video from John Oliver from a long while back on the topic of Net Neutrality.  It is dated at this point but still hilarious!

There is another battle well underway in parallel in the entertainment world where the forces of business are trying to change the way entertainment actually gets into your home.  Companies like Netflix and Amazon actually deliver entertainment content via the Internet, which is of course a very non-traditional approach to doing things.  Considering that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are almost always the cable companies themselves, this leads to the development of interesting business strategies by the cable companies to try to optimize return to their shareholders, all of which is supported by suitable lobbying of the government that is hoped to result in regulatory regimes that benefit one company or the other.

For heaven’s sake, it is only entertainment!

T-Mobile’s Binge On service

I wrote a blog on the subject of Net Neutrality a while back when the FCC was in the process of putting into place rules for the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with regards to how they manage traffic from different sources within their networks.  Essentially the FCC ruled that all traffic has to be treated the same, i.e., in a fair manner. At that time I noted that this was easy enough to say, but could be difficult to implement, considering the diversity of the data and the kinds of traffic carried on the Internet.  At that time I noted that the FCC should act with a soft touch with regards to enforcement of regulation.

It turns out that we did not have to wait that long to see an implementation of traffic management in a ISP’s system that seems to violate the FCC’s rules.  But this implementation is being presented by the vendor as a feature that benefits the customer.   Witness T-mobile’s Binge On service.

The data service paradigm for most mobile service providers in the US is that you pay the vendor based on the amount of data that you use, or wish to use (if you sign up for monthly quotas).   So anything that reduces the component of the data that you receive that actually counts towards measurement of your usage should be considered a positive for the customer according to T-Mobile.  (Of course, this assumes that the customer has signed up for receiving an amount of data that really matches what he or she needs.)

But what has happened in the recent past is that the mainstream service providers have been trying to force customers into service packages that include a lot more data than they need, with the hope that they get hooked onto new services that will chew up this additional bandwidth resource.  This is what happens when folks start streaming video services on mobile networks.  As usage increases and begins to match what the customer has actually subscribed for, he or she will become more inclined to pay for additional data services on the network.  (This will also serve as justification for the mobile service providers to lobby to buy up more of the nation’s bandwidth resources for their own networks.)

Enter T-mobile.  They say that they will not count the amount of data that a customer who has signed up for Binge On receives for certain video streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, etc..)  against the customer’s data usage limits.  It sounds good, but what they are also doing is controlling the amount of the data in those video streams for people who are signed up.  They are in fact lowering the quality of the video being delivered, i.e., they are treating these video streams differently from how they would treat them normally in their networks.

You might say that this is OK since the customer knows that this happening.   It turns out that the customer really may not know what is going on.  It seems like this service is being offered today as an “opt out” service, i.e., unless you mention anything, you are signed up for it.  Also, it has been observed today that the customer’s video services are throttled even for video service providers that have not signed up with T-mobile for supporting the service.  It is not clear if the customer still pays for the data being received in such circumstances.

What is happening is exactly along the lines of my expectations.  Due to the nature of the Internet today, there are bound to be scenarios that develop to do not meet the notion of net neutrality in a simplistic fashion.  The FCC will have to adapt, and as it does, the set of detailed regulations that need to be considered will tend to change and continue to expand.

When people complain about government and bureaucracy, it is useful to remember that most of this happens a result of people and organizations creating situations where they try to manipulate the system to their own benefit, where simplistic approaches for enforcement will no longer work.  Very often this is done in the pursuit of big money, not necessarily the betterment of man.  After all, who will argue that entertainment, which is the application for most of the streaming video that tends to dominate the bandwidth usage of the Internet today, is most essential for our living, and should dominate the use of our resources.

Its a crazy world we live in!

 

 

Is There a Concept of Having Too Much Technology

Some inventors from Airbus were recently granted the following patent.

If you follow the link you will see that the patent is essentially for the design of a passenger aircraft that can travel at speeds of up to Mach 4.5 using certain advanced technologies.  The invention contemplates an aircraft with three different kinds of engines for three different stages of flight.  The first engine type would be used for liftoff of the aircraft, the second would take it up to the altitude that it is supposed to fly at, and the third would let it cruise as speeds that border on the hypersonic. Although I have not read the patent,  I suspect that the innovation that is being claimed here is the single piece of equipment (i.e., the aircraft) being designed to work with the three engine technologies in three different stages of flight, and that the innovation is not in the inventions of the engine types themselves, although there could be some optimization/modification of the engines being contemplated for the application at hand.  There also ought to be some innovative ideas related to the shape of the aircraft and the placement of the engines.

Of course, filing patents is all about putting ideas that you consider implementable on the record and being acknowledged as the person who “owns” the idea, but it does not necessarily imply that the patents have been really implemented or are implementable in a practical sense in the near future.  In my past history, I have been fortunate  to have worked, in most cases with other people, on many concepts that have been patented, some of which have made it into real implementations, and many that have not.

In the case of this particular patent, I have my serious doubts about the design becoming reality in any practical sense for the purpose of moving passengers.   Factors that make me a skeptic include the development costs, the cost of the aircraft itself, its efficiency in terms of the cost of moving each passenger per mile, and finally the real need in our world for this kind of technology today.  In many cases patents are filed purely as a defensive measure, to let people know that you got the idea first, or to serve as a negotiating tool with your competition.  That having been said, I cannot completely discount the possibility of somebody somewhere convincing a military organization somewhere to spend billions of dollars for the purposes of building something based on this patent that improves our capability in the realm of waging war and killing people.  You do not have to look too far to see this kind of foolishness going on today. There is also a new field of commercial space flight that is emerging these days, where paying passengers can be given rides into space, for which some of this technology may be applicable. But if this idea becomes successful in that realm, only the super rich who can afford to pay humongous amounts of money for one-time thrills will be able to afford it.

People might argue that my viewpoint regarding the practical use of this technology is typical of those who have no real vision for the future.  After all, most of the technology that has been developed that keeps the world going today had a cost associated with it, and if people had not invested in these technologies, we would not be where we are today in terms of capabilities, lifestyles, convenience and comfort.  But how much of convenience and comfort does a human being really need?  There is also the trickle down factor to be considered, where technology that is developed for one limited scenario bleeds into more general usage.  This is particularly true about innovations that have come out of the space program that have found their way into every day use.   Fair enough!  But, at the same time, the innovation that comes from the space program is considered useful all in itself even if there were no immediate secondary benefits.  This is because we human beings want to know more about the Universe we live in.  We want to advance our knowledge.  Can some similar case be made for the benefits of developing of a passenger aircraft as contemplated in the patent?

We know that the concept of a super-fast aircraft did not work out from an economic perspective in the case of the Concorde (which was also a relatively much slower aircraft).  There is even the possibility that new aircraft technologies that have been introduced recently can end up not being successful in the long run.  Aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A380 are huge risks for their manufacturers, and it is quite possible that the companies may not even recoup their expenses over the lifetimes of the aircraft. The aircraft being contemplated in the patent would cost much more to develop, purchase and operate.  All things considered, will Boeing or Airbus even attempt to build a passenger aircraft that travels this fast?

Regardless, even if there was enough of a motivation to try to develop an aircraft as contemplated in the invention, and even if there were enough people willing to pay for flying in the aircraft so that a profit could be made in spite of the monumental developmental and manufacturing cost, what kind of real world scenario really demands/needs such a capability as far as speed is concerned?  Most leisure travelers are unlikely to be able to afford to fly such an aircraft.   If at all, this could turn into a business tool, a military boondoggle, or a toy for rich people. (I believe that when it comes to conducting business, we are definitely capable of coming up with some new reasoning for needing to use an aircraft of this type, finding a way to justify the cost based on what is likely to be some kind of hokey cost benefit analysis.  After all, there are a lot of companies today that still think it makes sense to own and use private luxury jets.  This is how business works.)  In my mind the above scenarios would amount to the use of technology just because it can exist and not because it is necessary.  Basically this would be about spending without having a good reason to do so.  What good will come out of any of it?

There is some commonality of this scenario with the story of a lot of the technology being developed in recent years in the field of electronics and communications.  The significant driver for advancements in this field is entertainment (perhaps it actually all starts out with porn).  Companies want to outdo their competition in this business, so that people with money to burn (and sometimes even people who cannot afford it) will try to buy their product.  A lot of resources of all kinds are spent in this regard, and the primary motivation is creating wealth and putting money into the pockets of those involved.  This is also my story, having worked for many years in the industry to make a living by advancing technologies for the purposes of delivering entertainment. I suppose there is nothing wrong with all of this.  This is the way capitalism works.

How much of the impact of new technologies really trickles down to the people whose lives really need to be improved? I have a lot of doubt in this regard about a lot of the stuff that is being worked on today. As I grow older I have more and more difficulty coming to terms with the development and use of technology just for technology’s sake.  I hope that the aircraft described above just remains a concept in somebody’s mind.

The Unending Battle to Protect Audio/Video Content in the Entertainment World

It is quite interesting, and even amusing, to see how the battle for content protection in the entertainment world continues even to this day. It was not too long ago that the entertainment industry, including the content providers, the content distributors (cable, satellite, etc..), and the manufacturers of content viewing devices, i.e., TVs, came up with the strategy of making analog video interfaces in the High Definition TV sets obsolete so that high quality video recordings could not be made on devices like VCRs.  Digital interfaces with content protection became the industry standard. The content owners managed to force the issue so that you could not be a player in the business without following particular rules for protecting their content. Content distributors had to toe the line with the content providers to be able to receive content, and the manufacturers of entertainment viewing devices depended in turn on the rules created by the content distributors in order to connect to their networks.

But eliminating analog interfaces in itself does not prevent the ability for the customer to make recordings. The digital format is perfect for recording!  The key difference from the world of the analog video interfaces was that the Industry recognized that this time they were still in a position to create rules for making digital recordings, something that they were not successful in forcing on consumers during the time of the VCRs.  Strategies were being devised to try to limit and eventually try to disallow consumer video recordings via digital interfaces.   The initial strategy taken was to try to manage the process for making digital copies of content in the home, either managing the nature of the copying process allowed, or limiting the number of copies allowed, or disallowing it completely.  This was enabled through rules that a manufacturer would have to agree to to be licensed to receive certain types of content.     It has now gotten to the point where a consumer finds it difficult to even make a decent quality copy of the content for his or her use, or for archiving, when receiving content on a television set.

You would think that the gradual tightening of the screws by the content providers would make piracy more difficult, but the truth is that it is only changing the nature of the process.   While the industry comes up with technical approaches to try to make pirating more difficult, the only way that they can really try to stop the piracy is through non-technical means – by licensing agreements, by monitoring, by regulations, and by legal action.  But can they even keep up with the technology and continue to be successful trying to manage it?

One of the fundamental issues with preventing piracy of audio/video content is due the very nature of the product itself. Video is meant to be viewed on a device and all you have to do is point a recording device at the viewing device, and voila!, you have the ability to record what you are receiving. Once you have this content, the world of the Internet allows you to share this content to others, and applications such as Youtube further enable the process by making this functionality easy to implement. It used to be that the analog copies that were made by pointing a camera at a screen were not very good, but that technology is also improving. Furthermore, the definition of the viewing device is also changing. Entertainment can now be consumed in devices other than TV sets, devices such as PCs, and smartphones, and the quality of the viewing experience on these devices is constantly improving. Since these other devices are primarily meant for non-entertainment purposes, the ability of the entertainment industry to force the issue of implementing content protection measures in these devices becomes more challenging.

I heard recently that there now are some Internet vendors who have implemented applications that are actually enabling the live streaming of video from one consumer location to others. As a practical matter this enables piracy to take place very easily, for example, high value Pay Per View (PPV) content being received by one paying subscriber can be streamed to a bunch of non-paying consumers. This kind of capability parallels what Youtube did for recorded video content. The content providers have a hard time shutting down these types of operations because it could be argued that the primary functionality that these companies are offering is not related to commercial content and piracy. They are primarily enabling sharing of content in general. Shutting this kind of service would be equivalent to creating an industry ban, or regulations, on camcorders on which families make recordings of family events because these devices can also be used for piracy. What the content owners are limited to doing is trying to influence the operations of companies that provide the services in question or the devices used to generate the content. As an example, in the case of Youtube, mechanisms have been instituted to try to identify pirated content within the network itself.   The content owners could even try to force the camcorder or camera manufacturers to include features their products that would automatically prevent recording of protected content. (It is actually technically possible using a technology called watermarking.)

But, it could be argued that all of these efforts are for a losing cause. With the development of cloud technology, including network storage and sharing capability via applications such as Dropbox and Google Drive, content sharing becomes more decentralized and difficult to track.   It is not just Youtube that the content providers need to focus on and deal with. Until network snooping and monitoring protocols are implemented and made legal for commercial purposes, it will become close to impossible to monitor piracy in such a scenario. It can also be an expensive proposition to implement this kind of functionality.  And with an abundance of bandwidth available to for the consumer, and device capabilities improving in the home, such functionality will also become more and more practical to implement.   To the extent that attempts at piracy are achieved through technologies that are becoming more and more common, that are legitimately meant for general purposes other than piracy, the content providers will be at a loss to prevent it from happening from a technical perspective. The only thing they can do is monitor content on the Internet, try to identify sources of pirated content, and shut down each of these sources (or put the fear of God into the common man, like the RIAA tried to do a few years back) by resorting to legal arguments and processes. While it might be technically possible for the content owners to do all of this, the democratization of the piracy capability can make this a very daunting challenge for the industry going forward. At some point they may actually have to depend on the goodwill of the average person, and it will be a fine line for them to walk between offering a product for a cost that the consumer is willing to pay vs. making a “pirate” out of the consumer, and the need to spend tons of money on enforcement. At the end of the day, it is a cost-benefit tradeoff, and analysis is based on the perceived value of the product that the industry is providing to the common man. Hard to imagine all this fuss is over entertainment, something that does not seem essential for our survival.