I love tech and get excited every year in the fall because it’s “new products” season. Last year Google announced a couple of new smart speakers, Apple also had a new smart speaker and Amazon updated their smart speaker. All of these speakers have one thing in common, they have automated assistants built in that do heretofore amazing things. They can order your favorite products, tell you the weather, and they sound great playing music streamed online. I have a problem with them, a big problem, but it’s not what you think.
There was one thing that hit me about virtually every single product on offer. Broadband is the accepted reality by the service providers. Google, one of the world’s most admired companies entire business model is designed around connectivity to the cloud. Search, Android, Chromebooks, Google Docs, etc.. are all ‘connected first’ product lines. It’s no wonder that Google’s stuff requires the cloud. Amazon is similar, but Apple surprised me considering that companies focus on hardware. Then I thought about my computer. Unplug your PC from the internet and see how useful it is. Without internet Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant, won’t have much to say. Everything and I mean everything, requires a great connection.
I started looking around at other things. Media services like Netflix and AAA Video games have more emphasis on play that requires connectivity than unconnected devices. The companies make largely symbolic gestures for those who lack connectivity such as downloading videos to your device, but that still requires the download part. This is kind of hard to do if you don’t have good broadband and I don’t have good broadband. I have really crappy broadband. I know I have told the story before on my podcast, but when I called into CenturyLink, my local area broadband monopoly, I was told my area would get three megabyte service. This incentivized me to buy property and build my home, technically with the mortgage it was a 30+ year decision. Turns out I get between half a meg and one meg. This is a far cry from the FCC’s stated goal of 25 meg broadband baseline. (Editors note: Under the Current Trump administration it’s expected the FCC will lower the definition of broadband back down to 10 meg service.) That’s today, but I never really had good internet service, even when I lived in a Raleigh suburb. So I looked it up, and according to the FCC I’m in the minority. Key findings from the most recent FCC report include the following: 10 percent of all Americans (34 million people) lack access to 25 Mbps up /3 Mbps down service. 39 percent of rural Americans (23 million people) lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. By contrast, only 4 percent of urban Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband. Apparently if you live in an urban area your ok, but if you have decided that rural is the better solution in the density dilemma, then your SOL. Ok, now I understand why traditional services like YouTube is pushing high bandwidth 4K and HDR videos and why companies are trying to re-engineer nearly everything with a built-in assistant. The broadband audience is going up and ambient computing is the focus for the next decade.
A quick primer on ambient computing if you’re not familiar with the term. Ambient computing is envisioned as computing that is all around you and always on. It’s similar to the original Star Trek when some character on the show would say “computer” and follow up the word with a question no matter where they were located. The computer would automatically spout out whatever information that crewmember happened to need at that moment to drive the plot forward. That’s kind of the world we live in, or at least the one that is currently envisioned by Amazon, Google, Apple, and to a lesser extent Microsoft. All you have to say is “OK Google”, or “Hey Cortana!”. They are creating products that will recognize you by voice and provide you with appropriate solutions to your needs based upon a growing data trove that they are keeping on you. As an example, the Google speaker will know the difference between whether it’s the husband or the wife talking to it. It will eventually be so nuanced by the data mining driving understanding of you that it will know what kind of smooth jazz artists you’re wanting versus what kind of smooth jazz artists your wife wants to hear when you both asked for smooth jazz. It will know where you are going based upon your calendar so when you ask the weather it will tell you the weather both where you are and where you are going to wind up. Ambient Computing cannot happen on the devices because it just simply takes too much memory and too much processing power so a connection to the cloud is required. For it to work effectively massive amounts of data has to travel up and down from your location to the server farms owned by the IT giants.
It should stand to reason that ambient computing isn’t just about easy access to what music you think will get your partner in the mood the quickest. It’s really about driving productivity which is no surprise as that is the underlying purpose of all computing.
But it’s all changing, connectivity is growing, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, I don’t believe fast expansion of broadband into rural environments is happening. Three things bring me to this conclusion. I live in it a county that is mostly rural but is ideal for broadband expansion for many reasons including income levels and the potential for economic development. When I say ideal I mean its head and shoulders above every other rural environment I am familiar with. This is a highly dynamic rural county. So looking at the county broadband news you see interesting tell signs. The first is that a local competitive broadband provider made a big stink about how they are bringing fiber to the country. All of the pomp and circumstance about the broadband expansion via fiber amounted to just a few miles being built out. A couple of miles of access to fiber optics does not come close to universal access. The second sign was when I spoke with an Insider at the incumbent broadband provider in our area. I’m well-versed in this topic and asked about some lower-cost options to bring real broadband to my community. It took a couple of weeks to get the response and the email from the insider was a simple nope, can’t bring you fiber. There was nothing along the lines of this is the number of people you need to have sign up, or this is the cost associated with it, or this is the hoops we have to jump through to bring it to you. The answer was simply: no. What I read into that was there was zero desire on the part of the service provider to even consider expanding the network to allow my community to have access to reasonable broadband. The third item is related to Google. If you follow the tech news you will see where Google dismantled its fiber-to-the-home initiative as being too expensive. This broke my heart as the Google Fiber program was a tremendously successful tool in forcing lethargic service providers into action out of fear of real competition.
Little groups of people with big groups of problems.
There is a lot of information available about the benefits of access to broadband. On the work side of the work and life equation, many employers wish to leverage employees access to broadband for telecommuting and increased work productivity. There are obvious entertainment opportunities only available with broadband access but even if we eliminate entertainment that requires broadband as being unnecessary, there is health care, educational and even civic initiatives that all require strong broadband. If Google is smart enough to know the specific kind of music you like, it’s also smart enough to hear the slur in your voice if you start having micro strokes before you have the major stroke. Think how much money that could save in preventative healthcare. Multiply that times the 10% of the people who don’t have access to the Broadband which would empower such a solution and it’s easy to see why Broadband access to 90% of the population isn’t good enough.
That gets back to my problem with the smart speakers I discussed at the beginning of this article. They represent another step in the digital divide and one that I don’t see closing anytime in the near future. What’s the natural outcome for the rural people? If good internet isn’t available, should the 10% even think about all the cool new toys? What about other services? When it does become available, how long will the services uptake be? What is the longer term cultural impact? These are heavy duty questions about a chunk of the population that unnecessarily is being left behind. I say unnecessarily because it’s not like there isn’t profit to be had by connecting them, it’s just that there isn’t enough profit. For me, the situation is so dispiriting that I find myself asking questions that are completely out of my nature. I say to myself things like: Maybe this is the time to walk away? Should I stop following the tech news? I could Completely unplug! Maybe I should turn off Netflix? I could get flip phones because what’s the point of the app’s if they can’t connect to anything? I want to remind you that this is coming from a huge tech aficionado.
The purpose of this week’s article was to touch on the next generation of computing interfaces, the frustration of not being able to really use them and talk a little bit more about where we are and the challenges when it comes to access. There is more to be explored. I didn’t even discuss the difference between access numbers and uptake numbers. Just because households have access doesn’t mean they subscribe to broadband. I also didn’t touch on the games that are played by the service providers to maximize profit and minimize services offered in the areas where they do provide broadband. I decided to focus on the introduction of the concept of ambient computing and as use it as a springboard for next week’s article. Next week I have one of my Big Problem Big Solutions articles planned about how to provide truly useful and universal broadband solutions. Like all of my BPBS articles, it’s really more about big ideas than a specific and detailed roadmap on the steps to take that will get us there. I expect it’ll be one of my more impassioned narratives because the topic is so near and dear to my heart.
I know many of my readers would love to read that article right now. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until it’s posted. Look at the bright side, there is a ton of other content to keep you busy over the course of the next week. You could read a blog, listen to some Spotify, or even watch something on Netflix. Well, I guess you can as long as you don’t live in the country.
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