Saturday, June 27, 2009

Nifty New Intranet Speed Test

Wow
LUS has launched a nifty new intranet speed test page. It tests the speed of the intranet portion of LUS' internet offering. (And you can only get to it if you are already on the network.) The decision to treat all of Lafayette as a "campus" to make the full speed of the local network available to all subscribers—regardless of what they pay—is probably the most unique and impressive aspect of LUS' service. It results in a single very high speed community within Lafayette of 100 mbps of service. Whether you buy into the lowest speed package or the highest one; whether you are the mayor or plain Joe Citizen you get 100 mbps to talk to your fellows on the network. That's something to be proud of both technically and socially...Campus networks are typically something you can only find within large college campuses or the "campus" of large corporations like Microsoft.

That 100 mbps is the technical limit of the hardware currently in use (as I understand it) and techy types here have always been curious as to how close LUS can get to that limit. For instance for 100 mbps "fast" etherenet—ethernet being the usual reference standard for networking—is theoretically capable of 100 mbps but in real-world situations achieving 80 mbps consistently is considered good by the technical sorts that administer these things.

On that score LUS must be working with some good engineers...I got 94 mbps out of my connection on this test:


What's more its rock-steady...look at the tiny variations in the blue speed line over the test:


But the most surprising part of the above speed graph is that inconspicuous red line right at the bottom...1 ms of "delay" aka "latency." That's every bit and maybe more surprising than getting so close to the 100 mbps barrier. Latency is crucial in making next-generation interactive audio and visual applications work well. If you want to actually talk to and see someone in real time it is crucial—and is seperate from simple "speed" which might better be described for these purposes as "capacity." You need the transit time from you to the person you are talking to and back to you to be as low as possible. You do need enough speed/capacity for good video resolution and audio; but you also need a very quick response--you need low latency to make the whole experience worthwhile. (You've recall those nice clear pictures of on-scene reporters from the other side of the world talking to show's anchor. You also recall those long pauses and akward starts and stops? That's the latency part.) 1 ms of delay is astounding. Even more astounding the absolutely flat line in that graph—every point reports at 1 ms—indicates that 1 ms is simply the lower bound of this testing setup. LUS' delay varies somewhere below 1 ms. The company that designed the software clearly didn't think that it needed to ever worry about reporting delay any smaller and so is reporting all delay below 1 ms as "1 ms." LUS has confounded the expectation that delay below 1 ms isn't practical. Wow again.

So, in its summary, the software tries to tell you what your connection is good for...and in this case the decision rendered has to sound like a laconic understatment:

With 94 mbps and and at 99% consistency the service is "high enough to support a high quality" voice conversation is a vast understatement. That's enough to support, without strain due to the connection, an HD video conversation....or several. Within the network you simply won't have to worry about the network limits on what you can do. These limits are far beyond what the current hardware and software is designed to handle. —The falsely high report of 1 ms from this test software is an example of how really high speed/high quality networks expose that weakness.

Looking For A Downside
In fact that hints at the dark lining on our silver clound: We've gotten so far ahead of the curve that we are finding new choke points—choke points that few others have to worry about. In practice the most serious choke points are usually local—in the last mile network or in your ISP's regional feeder system that supplies that last mile. Server delay sometimes figures in to a slow-loading page but is usually transient. The people who run the popular servers know that slow-loading pages drives the traffic they want away and fix any issues that might arise. Even rarer is within-premise delay. Your local network has typically been so much faster than what your ISP supplies at the wall of your house that misconfigurations and out-of-date hardware don't effect your perceived speed.

But with the sorts of speeds that LUS is providing, especially on the intranet, all these formerly unimportant server issues and local network messes suddenly become the new bottleneck. For instance: I've noted before that I haven't felt obliged to upgrade my WiFi to the newer, faster N standard because I simply couldn't get enough real bandwidth from Cox for two of us to saturate my wifi's ability to push bits. That's no longer true. The 94 mbps that I got above was what I got when I connected directly to LUS' ethernet connection. When I tried the same thing through my WiFi my connection dropped to 44 mbps. I lost half of my available speed! Frankly, I'm not upset—my current WiFi hardware is set up as an a/g network. When I tested it both my wife and I had connections open. The theoretical limit of an a/g setup is 54 mbps and and the typical achieved rate is about 22 mbps. My setup is working fine. It's just old-fashioned. I need to segment the network leave my wife's old laptop connected to an a/g node which is all her 'puter can handle and connect mine to the N version. (hey! Don't look at me like that. I tried to get her a new laptop. She won't let go of the one she has.) 802.11 n is supposed to get, in practical situations, 144 mbps...plenty enough for now.

When I talked to LUS about this they said they've had a lot of issues with routers not being able to push LUS's speeds out to the laptops. This problem emerges not only in old a/g wifi routers and even some N ones but more surprisingly also over the ethernet ports in some of those routers. (Pure 10/100 ethernet routers can generally handle the speeds on wired networks, I'd presume. My wifi router, an Apple Time Machine, happily doesn't have the weakness some combined routers do but you should check yours if you use any ethernet.) So...all that speed is going to put pressure on our creaky local area networks (LANs). It's my intention to rewire my house with cat 6 wiring and install a new gig ethernet (1000 mbps) router—all our working puters can use that speed. And since I've now got the speed I'm gonna trade out the old WiFi and put in new ethernet connections to my nifty new LUS box, media computer, the newer TiVo, my PS3, and hey the TV has an ethernet port, why not? (The day is coming soon when I'll video conference on my big screen TV with folks here in Lafayette...) They'll join my printer and kid/server 'puter on the faster wired network.

So...Lafayette, the good news is that you've got a fantastic network to use—at astonishing prices too. The bad news, such as it is, is that you'll have to start paying some attention to your end of the connection for probably the first time in your life. There might be some work involved.

I'm kinda enjoying having that kind of "problem." :-) Have fun!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Once You Go Broadband, You Never Go Back"

Apparently people in these hard times economize on other things...but broadband well, that's necessary:
"the survey found that while only 9% of Americans said they had canceled or cut back on online service, 22% said they had canceled or cut back on cable TV, and 22% said they had canceled or cut back on cell phone service."

"People are willing to shave premium services from their cable and services from their cell phones before they're willing to cut back on broadband," ... "Once you have broadband, you never go back, apparently."
That should help convince the doubters that broadband is a utility.

—from the latest Pew survey as reported by MediaPost.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

LUS Fiber's First Commercial Customer Goes Live

The headline is pretty much the story: "LUS Fiber's First Commercial Customer Goes Live." The Independent reports that Lafayette Convention and Visitors Center (LCVC) has taken a 50 meg symmetrical service for $119.50. They like it; Breaux, LCVC Director Breaux is reported as having said:
"Unbelieveable,” he says. “It’s been a major difference [in speed] and the whole group at LUS has been incredibly cooperative to get this whole thing going.” Plans are already in the works for a media event or open house demonstration of the service at LCVC. “We want everyone to come in and see how great it really is."
The IND notes that having only a single business customer is part of LUS Fiber's perhaps wise but surely frustrating measured roll-out strategy:
This follows LUS’ slow rollout strategy that allows it to carefully monitor and work out any service issues before expanding its clientele.
Ok, so that makes sense. Still. We want our fiber.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Set Tops Boxes...yet more

The set top box follies is turning into a long-running show. The latest show is back in Washington where the FCC has just issued a waiver to a cable company for their new set top box. The new waiver joins other recent decisions that mark a continued retreat on the part of the FCC from enforcing its long-standing "rule" that demanded that providers of cable services separate security from navigation. This was supposed to fix things so that you could go out and buy a set top navigation box made by a third party like TiVo and use the provider's security apparatus to make sure you weren't stealing service you hadn't paid for. It's a good idea—put the FCC has never consistently enforced it and in recent years has backed off requiring the cable card technology that it once relied on to provide the security end. The new waiver significantly extends the latest rationale for setting aside its own rules:

The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday granted a three-year waiver to Evolution Broadband for two low-cost set-top boxes that do not include CableCards -- a blanket exemption to the so-called "integration ban" that could pave the way for cable operators to deploy much less expensive set-tops.

The sub-$50 devices from Evolution Broadband covered under the waiver are one-way "limited-capability devices" that provide integrated security, referred to in the industry as digital terminal adapters. The boxes convert digital signals to analog format and don't provide advanced functions like digital video recording.

Under the waiver, Evolution Broadband is allowed to provide the set-top units to any cable operator. The FCC reached the decision May 28 and issued the order Tuesday.

"It's pretty clear -- it's an unlimited waiver," John Egan Sr., chairman of Evolution Broadband, said in an interview with Multichannel News. "It's something the industry should have done years ago."

There are a couple of interesting things about the waiver. First, as the article indicates it is effectively an unlimited waiver for the alternate technology: anyone with the need can by one of these cheaper boxes and deploy it. That's opens the floodgates pretty wide and skirts the edge of simply repealing the rule; albiet in favor of a single company—a favor that can't long be reserved for one maker. Note, too, that LUS' request for exemption is also about money—their application notes that the technology is simply not available at any cost for the Lafayette network and that LUS can't afford to develop the technology on its own.

Another interesting thing, especially in light of Cox's opposition to LUS' waiver, is the way that the involvement of the American Cable Association highlights Cox's purely mercenary motives in opposing Lafayette's waiver. The cable industry as a whole (not excluding Cox) has benefited by repeated extensions of waivers and the ACA is quick to laud any exemption for its members. (See also another recent waiver for a cable company.) Cox's opposition has nothing to do with principle or even self-interest in the broader sense-it has demanded and received similar waivers for its own operations. It's opposition is purely about trying to game the FCC to gain a momentary advantage in one small city in south Louisiana.

Set top boxes are interesting (they are!) because of the critical position they occupy in the video/cable ecology. Everything passes through the set top box and as the number of channels expands and the sources of video multiply—think Amazon or Netflix—the capacity and openness of the set top box has profound implications for how the "broadcasting" industry evolves. In general Cox and other incumbents are hoping to control the experience (and dollars) of users by controlling the box. They want to own the box and use it to promote everything from Pay Per View to security services to its own controlled versions of internet downloads. They also want to make sure that you don't simply start watching your shows through net-based services like Hulu and Netflix. And they want to make extra-sure that the set top box doesn't evolve your TV screen into another, bigger montior to simply switch your attention over to the internet; a competing media that is already cutting deep into the "eyeballs" that are needed to support the "cable" services that all players count on for revenue.

Freeing the set top box from the constraints of the cable/broadcast model would be hugely beneficial. Especially if it leads to erasing the wall between the cable service and the internet service. That's what incumbent providers most fear. LUS is unique on this continent for having opened a crack in that wall by making internet service directly available through its set top box and onto the screen. You can read wikipedia (alibeit pretty clunkily) in your house in Lafayette with NO computer and that is the real value—and threat—behind LUS' use of the set top box.


NOTE: I've been repeating a mistake for quite a while on this blog that is related to the set top box issue: LUS cable service is not translated from digital to analog at the wall of the house. Instead it's translated from digital into analog at the headend and sent on its own wavelength of light to side of the house where its combined with data signals from the internet side and piped over the coax to your set top box or TV. I'm not sure of how to understand this distinction; when you get deep into the tech and physics the line between analog and digital can get pretty blurry—especially when you're talking of going from digital to analog and back and layering together purely digital and "made analog" signals on the same pipe. I've been promised a clearer explanation of the new description of how things work. And when I get it I'll pass it on.

Digital Media Facing Cuts

Lost amid the stories of the Louisiana Legislature's most recent set of follies is the damage being done to those odd corners where people actually try and develop a better future. We're not talking here about the gauzy langauge that always envelops grabbing the state's cash for perfectly standard special-interest projects like funding I-49 South or giving money to some California company to help them buy a chicken plucking plant. No, what's actually future-oriented is much more vulnerable almost by definition. The real deal has yet to develop it a "constituency" beyond a core of the most creative and imaginative. And those folks are not special in any sense that a state legislature can recognize.

This is all in reaction to a story in this week's Independent that surveys the probable cuts to some of Lafayette's technological jewels. Interestingly, they're all into digital media of one sort or another...the LITE Center, 3D Squared's game/education curricula, and the UL Cinematic Arts Workshop at UL. The cuts to those programs aren't the end of the story either: cuts to the Louisiana Division of the Arts and the Louisina Endowment for the Humanities indirectly cuts alternate funding to these efforts and to the rest of the digital arts band in Lafayette. Long-term infrastructure is losing its opportunity as well with Regent's declaration that no new degree programs can be launched this year putting the breaks on UL's proposed moving image arts degree.

The sad thing is that these programs are just the sort that plant the real seeds for the future; its a pity that our legislature doesn't see the long-term value for such in the future and have the courage to actually support what's right rather than what's expedient. It's short-sighted. But then short-sightedness is what got us into the state's current mess. The legistlature last year tossed decades of hard-won fiscal reform into the toilet when it repealed critical parts of the Stelly reform plan during a freak year when a massive influx of federal dollars due to hurricane recovery and a predictably temporary spike in the price of oil produced a large surplus. Rather than husband that windfall for the easily foreseeable rainy day they did the easy—and irresponsible—thing of giving the voters a tax break in perpetuity. Without that we'd have enough money to fund higher education....and maybe a few other things that would actually be the seeds of a better future.

Maybe next time.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Fun: Black Fiber & Black SUVs

Here's a link that's mostly just for smiles: The One Fiber Optic Cable No One on the Dig for Tysons Rail Wants to Hit.

You may have heard of "dark" fiber—that's the miles of fiber that run across the country that has never been lit; fiber that has never been used. So it's common to talk about "dark" fiber and "lit" fiber and its differing costs and availability.

But you've likely never heard of "black" fiber. That's because you're not supposed to have heard anything about it. Apparently that's the trade term for the ultra-secure fiber that the government intelligence agencies use. So it's a special kind of problem when it gets cut. That problem is apparently particularly intense around the D.C and Northern Virgina areas where the various agencies have their headquarters...

Here's a fun snippet:

This part happens all the time: A construction crew putting up an office building in the heart of Tysons Corner [VA] a few years ago hit a fiber optic cable no one knew was there.

This part doesn't: Within moments, three black sport-utility vehicles drove up, a half-dozen men in suits jumped out and one said, "You just hit our line."

Whose line, you may ask? The guys in suits didn't say.... But Georgelas assumed that he was dealing with the federal government and that the cable in question was "black" wire -- a secure communications line used for some of the nation's most secretive intelligence-gathering operations.

"The construction manager was shocked," Georgelas recalled. "He had never seen a line get cut and people show up within seconds. Usually you've got to figure out whose line it is. To garner that kind of response that quickly was amazing."

...he figured that the government was involved when an AT&T crew arrived the same day to fix the line, rather than waiting days.

Spooks, apparently, care about their fiber...and get good service. :-)