The Barriers to Better Internet – Comment and Share!

Where is this tower?
Who owns it?

We all want more Internet in more places. Most folks assume that the stage is set to make this happen. Unfortunately, no it is not. As an Internet builder myself, I can say that, yes, funding is an issue but it’s not the first hurdle. The initial barriers to better Internet involve data. That is, there is no infrastructure map or market to help build the Internet. These are things we need before we can even look at the issue of funding. Let’s explore what I mean.

Explaining the Barriers to Better Internet

I’ll use an analogy because it simplifies things and takes the industry specific terminology off the table. We want to build a house. We have nails but where do we find the wood? There is no equivalent of a home hardware store to go to. Instead what we have are wood piles placed all over the country sitting unused. How do we find the wood piles? Who owns them? What kind of lumber is it specifically? (2×4? 2×6? Length? etc.)

Most first world governments do supply funding but it is typically for building more of these hidden wood piles.

What exactly are these “wood piles”? They are “passive infrastructure” needed to build the Internet. Things like towers, conduits and cables (like fiber). And this infrastructure is shareable; meaning they are more like a 40-story office tower than a single-family home. The nails are active infrastructure like radio and cable transceivers which are readily available. But where do you install these things if you don’t have any passive infrastructure to install them on? How do you create a budget that is reasonable? (That is, not build absolutely everything from scratch; which is how we do it today.) This is the challenge of Internet builders and it affects urban and rural but rural to a much greater extent.

Rural Problem? Urban Problem? First World Problem?

Here in Canada, there is tons of empty passive infrastructure across the nation but it is hard to find, figure out who owns it and then to strike a deal in which to share it.

But based on what I’ve seen, this problem certainly exists in both the USA and Canada and it is highly likely most other jurisdictions around the globe. It is just the degree of the problem that will vary.

Canada has a partial database of passive infrastructure for towers called “Spectrum Direct” but adding information about the towers is an afterthought. That is, its intended use is to track wireless (spectrum) licenses and only collects data on where the radio is as meta data about the license (an afterthought). This doesn’t track any unlicensed wireless or “free” wireless. On a tight budget, which would you expect to be used? This means it doesn’t have data on towers for 10s of thousands of towers. Further, the database doesn’t validate the passive infrastructure information and does not indicate ownership of the passive infrastructure. 

On other geospatial databases, nothing seems to be public and whatever there is a patch-work across provinces. I’ve checked with IHS, Esri and even Bell / Telus. In fact, Telecom companies often don’t even know what they own. In one story, a peer of mine reported a fiber pedestal that Bell owned to Bell. Bell didn’t know about it. It turned out they had acquired a company that owned the fiber and had not incorporated the information into their main geospatial database. This is if they even have a main database? It could be spread across multiple databases. A 2013 article by Esri located here explains how Bell better used GIS. This article does not inspire confidence that telecom companies have excellent geospatial databases.

USA has a bit better database, the FCC’s Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) database, but it only tracks towers above 100’. Nothing about smaller infrastructure that is equally as useful to wireless and will be even more so with 5G. There is nothing about private infrastructure or accessing cable.

In urban locations, my own community specifically, Enmax has been laying empty conduit in alleyways. Telus has been “planning” to lay fiber for at least 7 years, probably more. I know rural communities that have fiber to the premises faster. Are Enmax and Telus communicating about what assets are in the ground? Hopefully? Probably not. So urban situations, a little bit better, but clearly not a lot better.

Ground Truthing is not the Answer

Sure, we could drive around urban and rural Canada “ground truthing” to figure out what is there every single time we want to build more Internet. But not all infrastructure is located along roads. And even if you do find something, often times the infrastructure is physically unmarked with ownership information. I have unmarked boxes in my community in Calgary, in rural areas the problem is infinitely worse.

But should we have to drive around mapping everything every time we have a project to build better Internet? This is a mapping process that takes between 1 to 18 months for every single Internet building project being undertaken in every single jurisdiction, every country, etc. This mapping process has to be completed before applying for funding (including government funding!). It introduces considerable delay and expense.

We’re in the year 2020. Why is this data problem not being addressed? I would hope that it’s crystal clear that this data problem is central to resolving the barriers to better Internet. In my experience though, most people do not know about this. And they are further shocked to hear that the Internet is mostly a low profit margin business.

The Internet is mostly a low Profit Margin Business

I hear you: “Wait? What?”. The money in the Internet is in high density/volume (e.g. smartphones). Every other Internet related business has lower margins. The lower the density, the lower the margin. So cabling households with fiber in urban communities is something Telecom companies only do organically over time unless subsidized. This is why Google Fiber has been so slow to expand and hasn’t built anything for the past four years. It takes a lot of creativity to make the funding work.

The fact is, consumers and businesses do not want to spend a lot of money on Internet. It’s a utility now. The cheaper it is, the better for the economy. So, for rural areas, their exceptionally low density makes the situation incredibly dire. Rural profit margins are usually negative. This is the reason why rural areas are a low priority for Telecom companies. Even with government subsidies to help bring the profit margin above zero, rural projects are still lower priority due to lower profit overall and poor prospects for growth.

Taking Down the Barriers to Better Internet

We need two things:

  1. A government policy requiring all Telecommunication assets to be registered to a no-fee publicly accessible geospatial database. Oil & Gas is already required to do this. They have to register every pipeline, every compressor, every plant, etc. to a no-fee publicly accessible geospatial database. Why shouldn’t Telecommunications similarly have to register?
  2. A marketplace for passive infrastructure; a “rentfaster” site for building the Internet. Need to make an offer someone can’t refuse? This shouldn’t take years. It should take less than an hour. And renting passive infrastructure is already proven to work. That’s why ~70% of the world’s towers are already shared, just not here in Canada; read more about that here.

These items would create a marketplace that would drive Internet growth. It would create a vibrant market that could start solving the problem on its own with less and less government funding and intervention and in less time. Based on all this, where are our respective governments with respect to providing funding and direction to this problem? Canadian government: Zilch. US government: Nothing that I know of.

Next Steps?

Overall, I’m looking for like minded individuals willing to volunteer some time. Possibly next step would be to start a petition but I’d like to discuss and develop this idea. If you can’t do much, please share this message and help me reach out to more like-minded folks. There is no requirement to have technical knowledge in this area and many times cross discipline knowledge is critical.

While We Wait for the Barriers to Better Internet to Fall

I’ve written an article that explains some things households, and sometimes businesses, can do to help improve their Internet service without waiting for the larger forces of the Internet to make things happen. Click here for my article “Forget a bandwidth upgrade! Try these 4 things to make the home internet experience better”.

About the Author

An avid writer, Trevor Textor has been quoted by Reader’s Digest, NBC News, Reviews.com and MarketWatch.com among others. Over the course of 20 years Trevor has designed and built many small rural Internet builds across the globe. “It’s slower than dial-up” is something he knows personally (move mouse, wait 10 seconds, screen re-draw, try again) and has since used his passion to look for ways to help build better Internet. How Trevor pays his bills is as a freelancer providing a “swiss army skillset” and a proven ability to successfully assist many small, medium and large businesses in most areas of their business. Please consider clicking here to ask Trevor and his partner if they can help via their freelancing corporation “Textor Corp.”.

In-Person Workplace Serendipity – All Is Not Lost with Remote Working

In-Person Workplace Serendipity Doesn’t Just Happen

This CBC news article “Working from home makes sense for some, but we can’t afford to sacrifice serendipity” article argues that remote working results in a loss of “In-Person Workplace Serendipity” from “[running] into each other without an agenda, get to talking, and creativity is sparked.” I don’t know. I remain skeptical of this.

My experience with my own workplaces is that there is very little creativity. When a person only interacts with their teammates who are people in the same field, I argue very little serendipity happens. In fact, there are theories about this in that it lacks “creative abrasion” and experiences “group think”.

How To Properly Access Serendipity

Where I’ve experienced serendipity is from “going outside the normal”. That is, attending cross-disciplinary events and getting views from completely different life experiences. It is unlikely most people will get this kind of cross-disciplinary access at work unless they have access to great leadership. The TED talk “The secret to great opportunities? The person you haven’t met yet” explains how this cross-disciplinary approach to networking changes life in what I feel is true serendipity.

Now, of course, the benefits of in-person workplace serendipity depends on the actual work. If a person is in a field that requires constant creativity/building of something it may make sense for in-person interaction… but again, these types of activities benefit usually by working in pairs which may still be able to be done remotely just fine (e.g. “pair programming”). There is a lot of evidence that groups beyond 2 people become less productive.  The article mentions summer students and yes, I agree, in person interactions would work best for summer students. However, saying that a lot is lost by interacting remotely just seems wrong. I myself have supported developing individuals and adapting to what they need remotely has been similar to what I would do in-person.

Perceived Barriers to Remote Working

If you watch the video in this same article Linda Duxbury mentions remote workers don’t have child or elder care. Why?? How is that the fault of working remotely? That sounds like it’s not structured correctly. She does mention that bosses may not be familiar with managing people remotely but again, this comes around to the fact no one has been willing to try it, learn and change on a mass scale until now. This sounds a lot like “we’ve always done it this way why would we change?” thinking.

A related article “Video chats short circuit a brain function essential for trust — and that’s bad for business: Don Pittis” suggests that video meetings are “an inadequate substitute for real-life interaction” causing a phenomenon now referred to as “Zoom fatigue”. As a long time remote worker, I whole-heartedly agree that video meetings are bad. But audio meetings? Us long time remote workers haven’t used video for the most part except for screen sharing.

There are obvious problems with video meetings; Have you noticed that you look at a person’s eyes but they are also looking at your eyes and because the cameras are at different spots it just comes off as awkward? This is why I’ve discussed teleprescence which would resolve this and many other issues. But the fact is, we don’t have access to this technology at the individual level yet. In the meantime, audio is superior to video/audio meetings. That’s why I suggest for productivity purposes that after initially meeting by video that folks move to audio-only. The article agrees by saying “you can make a better judgement from listening to audio alone” versus using video.

In-Person Workplace Serendipity

I believe this is just change at work. I don’t think all is lost with remote working and In-Person Workplace Serendipity won’t get replaced completely by remote working. It will get modified. I believe this experience is giving us the opportunity to learn and grow. For instance, maybe we learn exactly those types of situations of which being in-person leads to true serendipity. Then, I believe we’ll have come through to the other side.

If you’d like more articles on the dangers of like-mindedness, a danger present in most teams, see more here “Why Being With Like-Minded People Is Dangerous”  

About the Author

Trevor Textor has worked in various roles requiring remote work since 1997. Since 2014 he’s been supporting small, medium and large businesses as a freelancer (contingent labor) with a “swiss-army knife”-like suite of skills. In addition to setting up policy, procedures and technology for himself and his partner he has also met this need with clients in enabling their remote work. Trevor has been quoted by Reader’s Digest, NBC News, Reviews.com and MarketWatch.com. Ask Trevor if he can help: https://www.textor.ca/contactme/.

Networking Via Virtual Conferences

Virtual Conference Lobby

Networking has traditionally been something that needs to be done on the ground. Coronavirus (COVID-19) has thrown a wrench into all that among other things. Like me, you’re probably wondering what it’s like to do networking via virtual conferences?

Background

As a freelancer I get most of my business from networking at conferences. Therefore, I am motivated on a survival level to see if the value of conference networking can be recreated virtually.

My first successful virtual networking experience was via QuickBase’s 2020 Empower Conference. I was specifically looking to experience the networking component as I’ve attended virtual networking in prior conferences and it was a failure. In those instances, the software was not ready for virtual conferences.

Networking Via Virtual Conferences – How It Worked

QuickBase utilized the 6Connex Virtual Event Software. Networking was via Breakout sessions. The participant was given a list of networking subjects to choose from. QuickBase is a low-code platform marketing to the economy as a whole. Subjects included: “manufacturing”, “small business”, “not-for-profit”, etc.

After selecting the subject, the participant was then asked to register their name and email address for a Zoom meeting. Once this was done, the participant was given a Zoom meeting URL. When fully connected to Zoom, the participant briefly met with the conference organizer panel that was assigned to that subject. The panel then randomly assigned the subject to a micro-breakout session of 4-6 people.

The micro-breakout networking ended abruptly at the allocated time. If anybody was mid-sentence they were cutoff. The panel organizers followed the micro-breakout by addressing everybody in the larger audience (~45 people) as a wrap-up and terminated the session.

I arrived late, due to work commitments, so presumably the panel organizers prefaced the subject before assigning people to micro-breakouts.

Lessons Learned

  1. Prepare your workspace for remote working. I wrote a tips article on this subject: https://www.textor.ca/preparing-for-remote-working/
  2. If you know before-hand what the conference is using for video conference software, try to pre-install it. Zoom is very popular though, I suggest having it pre-installed either way: https://zoom.us/download
  3. Test audio and video prior to joining if possible or given the opportunity to do so.
  4. Be ready to video conference.
    • Wear clothes as if you were going into an office.
    • Make sure the background behind you is tidy.
    • Avoid use of virtual backgrounds. In my experience as a public speaker and having been given feedback, they are distracting as they do not work that well. This experience has been consistent over many types of webcams and video conference platforms.
    • Enabling video adds to your perceived level of professionalism. Many folks may not enable their video and that’s ok. But if you want to display professionalism, start with your video on when networking via virtual conferences.
  5. Be familiar with how to mute and unmute. It’s best practice to mute when you are not talking and unmute when talking. I can’t stress this enough and if you only make one thing a habit when working remotely it is this.
  6. Be prepared to take notes. This helps you follow the conversation and ask interesting questions during the networking session. This is something we may not have the opportunity to do in real life, so take advantage of it. I’ve used this technique when publicly speaking on panels and it has noticeably improved my performance over those panelist who do not do this.
  7. Write all the people’s names down in order to follow-up via chat post-call if necessary. The conference usually has a directory so you may be able to track them down to follow-up on conversation items and/or exchange business cards (virtually of course).
  8. Keep to the schedule. Look for an opportunity to ask if there is an interest in swapping contact info. Leave this no later than 5-7 minutes before the scheduled end if possible.

Conclusion

Honestly, the hard stop was frustrating but I can see the value of having this power to “pull the plug” from a conference organizer’s perspective. Clearly, it will take some getting used to networking via virtual conferences. But I see that it can be effective.

I’d like to hear from other’s experiences. What do you think?

About the Author

An avid writer, Trevor Textor has been quoted by Reader’s Digest, NBC News, Reviews.com and MarketWatch.com among others. As a freelancer Trevor has a “swiss army skillset” and has proven able to successfully assist many small, medium and large businesses in most areas of their business. Ask Trevor if he can help: https://www.textor.ca/contactme/.

“The Internet” – UofC Alumni Online Speaking Engagement – May 7, 2020 – All Welcome

I am honored to be speaking to my University of Calgary Alumni association, Computer Science Chapter, on May 7, 2020 from 5:30-6:30pm. Everyone is welcome.

Topic

The Internet. Big, bold, confusing and, most now say, critical.

Trevor Textor has journeyed through the world of “the network” for nearly 20 years. In this presentation he’ll be looking at the Internet from the lens of a rural municipality that had to build their own network just to get the vendor to provide service to their residents. Together we’ll explore the Internet’s many facets and hopefully dispense with a few myths.

Registration

If interested in attending please register here: https://netcommunity.ucalgary.ca/CPSCAlumniLecture_May2020

Update (May 10, 2020): Video recording is located here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rz0_oj5Balk

Why the Focus on Streaming Services During the Coronavirus (covid-19) Crisis

The internet cannot crash. Like a highway, it is built to handle separate discrete “vehicles”. The problem with the internet is that it will get congested and become slow. As my rural users say “This is worse than dial-up!!”. It can become so slow that you’ll move the mouse and wait 10 seconds for the screen to update where it went.

However, there is a tool to help manage congestion; it’s called “Quality of Service” (QoS) which can recognize and prioritize critical packets (e.g. critical vehicles like fire trucks and ambulances). QoS is usually only implemented on private networks but during a crisis, it could theoretically be enabled on the internet.

I use QoS at home to ensure my work computer gets priority to the house’s internet connection (the “last mile”). Here’s what it looks like to setup on my home router:

 

Let’s be honest though, streaming services are not “critical” and will not get QoS priority.  That is, no one is going to die, the economy will not suffer if someone’s television isn’t optimal. So this is the situation that video streaming is in:

Roughly 60% of internet traffic is video streaming which is why the focus is on reducing video quality which will reduce traffic loads.

How can video quality be reduced? Via compression, frames per second (fps) and/or resolution.  How much benefit is there from reducing this? Consider the “Standard Definition” digital equivalent is about 480p resolution. As portrayed in the bandwidth usage charts here,  Netflix bandwidth usage of 480p @ 23.976 fps versus 4K @ 59.940 fps is staggering! ~792 MB per hour vs ~7 GB per hour for a factor of over 7 times (700%)!

The impact may be annoying to some or some people might not even notice. I run all my video services at SD digital equivalent quality even pre-crisis because I don’t care and don’t really notice. I like that the videos load faster when they are smaller. Users may notice more so these differences on larger screens.

Compared to analog television, it doesn’t matter what the streaming services cut, it will still be better!

Preparing for Remote Working – During Coronavirus (covid-19) or Otherwise

As Telecom networks deal with “unprecedented” pressure it may feel like there isn’t much you can do to prepare yourself for working remotely. While that’s somewhat true, it isn’t entirely true. Here are some things you can likely do when preparing for remote working.

Preparing for Remote Working

  1. Plug directly into your internet service modem/router. If you think you don’t have a cable, try looking in your original computer/modem/router boxes if you still have them. They usually come with a cable and you may have collected some unwittingly over time.
  2. If online stores are still open, invest in a good router. I talk more about this in my article: “Forget a bandwidth upgrade! Try these 4 things to make the home internet experience better“.Consumer Reports came out with article echoing the things I’ve mentioned but better yet, they make product recommendations: https://www.consumerreports.org/home-office/work-from-home-covid-19-tech-that-will-make-it-easier/.
  3. If your router has a Quality of Service (QoS) feature, use it. Assign your work computer to the “highest” setting while making sure junior is watching TV on a lower QoS setting. Break out your router’s manual to find out if you can do this.
  4. Set any video, including video for a teleconference, to its lowest quality setting. Most video streaming services have a “download to device” feature which can make sure the device is not streaming while you’re trying to teleconference. Switching from HD to SD can save up to 25% of your bandwidth – article: “Netflix And YouTube Switch To SD To Ease Pressure On European Networks
  5. Think you’re ready for your work teleconference? Test your changes to see how well you did. The Cisco Spark WebEx Network Test measures all pieces of your internet service to make sure you’re ready; it’s not just about bandwidth!
  6. While you might not need a webcam, you’re going to need a really good headset (again, if you can still order one online). I talk more about this in my “PMI-SAC Remote Working Tips” article. Don’t forget to mute if you’re not talking while on a teleconference!
  7. Make sure your workspace is ready:
    • Have a room with a door that can be closed and that is quiet.
    • If you’ll be doing video meetings, ensure the background behind you is tidy.
    • Have a proper desk and chair setup. Do your best to make it ergonomic.
  8. Wear something that makes you feel productive. For many people this means not wearing pajamas but if that’s not you, then you’re good!
  9. Keep consistent work hours as much as possible.
  10. Go outside at least once during the day; especially important for those who live in areas where vitamin D supplements are necessary.
  11. Exercise at least 30 minutes a day.
  12. Get used to thinking about what is the best way to communicate to your team members depending on your needs. For instance, if you need to discuss something right away and at length, instant messaging might not be the right forum. Know when to pick up the phone or start a teleconference.
  13. You’re going to have to develop your ability to pick up on tones people are using. You may have heard that if you lose one of your senses, another sense goes into “overdrive”. Well, the same with remote working. You don’t have the luxury of a physical presence. More on this subject and more via the article “These are the 7 reasons why working from home can make you a better communicator“.
  14. If you need 1-1 check-ins, schedule them. Don’t assume someone is going to stop by regularly; make that happen.

Wrapping Up on Preparing for Remote Working

I hope it’s clear that being good at working remotely doesn’t just happen. Preparing for remote working takes preparation and some skills development. Don’t beat yourself up though, it takes time. Try to make the changes gradually if you can.

For more remote working suggestions see them here: https://www.inc.com/lindsey-pollak-eileen-coombes/remote-work-home-productivity-communication-self-care-morale-team.html

And another excellent article “4 Work-From-Home Mistakes That Cost Businesses Thousands Of Dollars” which outlines important rules teams can adopt to maximize productivity and overcome limitations that offices allow us to workaround but become big problems when working remotely:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/stephanieburns/2020/06/02/4-work-from-home-mistakes-that-cost-businesses-thousands-of-dollars/

About the Author

Trevor Textor has worked in various roles requiring remote work since 1997. Since 2014 he’s been supporting small, medium and large businesses as a freelancer (contingent labor) with a “swiss-army knife”-like suite of skills. In addition to setting up policy, procedures and technology for himself and his partner he has also met this need with clients in enabling their remote work. Trevor has been quoted by Reader’s Digest, NBC News, Reviews.com and MarketWatch.com regarding setting up appropriate Internet and WiFi service for remote work. Ask Trevor if he can help: https://www.textor.ca/contactme/.

Does Bandwidth Increase Speed? They are not the same thing!

 

It’s terribly confusing that Bandwidth and Speed terms are used interchangeably as they are not the same thing but what it really comes down to is this question: Does bandwidth increase speed? Let’s explore what bandwidth is to see if we can answer this question.

Bandwidth is the number of “lanes” available to your computer. It is typically measured in Megabits/second of Mbps or Gigabits/second or Gbps. Do the number of lanes affect the speed of your car? Typically no, unless it’s rush hour.

What matters is how fast you can drive right? That’s “latency” in the internet/networking world. It is dependent on a lot of different factors, including but not limited to, the speed of your computer, the speed of your network card, the speed/how busy your local modem/router is, the speed/how busy your local internet provider’s infrastructure is and then all these factors on the other end of the connection as well. The “bottleneck” in the equation defines your latency at that particular time to whatever particular service.

So yes, bandwidth can increase speed but only if there is congestion. A sane person usually doesn’t seek out congestion so this is really only a problem in certain rural situations where congestion can’t be avoided. So, in a normal situation bandwidth will not increase speed.

So how do your measure your internet connection? Well, take those “bandwidth” sites with a grain of salt – they are best for measuring the bandwidth received to match up with the internet plan your paying for. The best measurement test I’ve found to determine “quality of experience” is the Cisco Webex Network test: https://mediatest.webex.com.

It measures a bunch of different things for a video call, which is the most demanding application for most people. If you get all green, then you’re in good shape. It means you could run all applications from that location without issues (as long as the opposite party doesn’t have a bad connection of course).

Check out my own article on how to improve your internet: https://textor.ca/2015/03/forget-a-bandwidth-upgrade-try-these-4-things-to-make-the-home-internet-experience-better/ 

Others have written on this subject – try here for another spin on this subject: https://accucode.com/bandwidth-vs-speed-which-is-more-important-2/

Notes:

M-Lab, the platform/data behind CIRA and Google speed tests, has a visualization tool for average speeds located here (if it doesn’t work, try a different browser): https://www.measurementlab.net/visualizations/

Fast.com is Netflix’s internet speed test. You can access it by clicking here. Although it has the limitations I’ve previously identified (as with other speed tests), Netflix explains how they designed their speed test which may make it more accurate than other speed tests:
https://netflixtechblog.com/building-fast-com-4857fe0f8adb 

Published in Reader’s Digest “11 Hidden Reasons Your Internet Is So Slow”

Yes, the Reader’s Digest. Access their article here:

11 Hidden Reasons Your Internet Is So Slow (Oct 1, 2018)

They quoted a popular post I wrote in 2015:

Forget a bandwidth upgrade! Try these 4 things to make the home internet experience better

Note: Reader’s Digest is owned by “Trusted Media Brands, Inc.” and the article may also be displayed on other sister sites such as Family Handyman: https://www.familyhandyman.com/smart-homeowner/diy-home-improvement/hidden-reasons-your-internet-is-so-slow/