Comcast Bandwidth Deception

I work on the Internet. Having a fast Internet connection is an important part of my work environment. At home, I also use my Internet connection for entertainment and home automation. When my Internet connection is slow or isn't working, I notice.

For the last few months I've been a reluctant Comcast cable Internet customer, after technical and speed challenges with the local DSL provider I was using couldn't be resolved. I pay for a 25Mbps download speed service level with Comcast. But almost as soon as we had service turned on, I started noticing that from around 5 PM until around 10PM or later, our available speeds would significantly decrease - sometimes down to 1Mbps or lower.

I contacted Comcast about it. After all the usual ridiculousness where they try to sell me phone service, tell me I need a new cable modem, tell me it must be squirrels, etc, we got to the heart of the matter:

Me: Is our bandwidth shared with other users, or should it be protected even during peak times?
Comcast: It's not shared at all.

I didn't believe them, but I believed that they wouldn't admit to the bandwidth being shared. So I started collecting data to prove otherwise.

Using a command line tool to query the speedtest.net service, I set up a script that would run once every hour and record the currently available download and upload speeds, as well as ping time. I put all that in a spreadsheet. After two months, I graphed the average upload and download speed available at each hour of the day:

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Toothpaste tube UX improvement

Shortly after a new tube of toothpaste goes into use, I start rolling the tube over on itself and putting a binder clip on the end:

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The result is an "always full," strangely satisfying, easy-squeezing user experience throughout the life of the tube, and (I hope) less wasted toothpaste. Hat tip to my grandfather who I believe did a version of this, probably with rubber bands.

When a tube is done, there are lots of things you can do with it before throwing it away.

I have read and agree to the terms of service

NSA Seal

As revelations continue about the US Government capturing and monitoring online activities and communications, I'm glad (and, ok, only a little bit smug) to see that more conversations are happening about just what privacy expectations we should give up by using modern Internet tools and services.

Most of the mainstream conversation has been focused on what information "big data" companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook and Apple do or don't hand over to the government and under what circumstances, and debating where those lines should be.

The built-in assumption here is that it's inevitable that these are the companies that will continue to have access to our private information and communications. I grant that it's a pretty safe assumption - I don't foresee a mass exodus from Facebook or a global boycott on iPhones - but I do think it's important to note that this is a choice we are making as users and consumers of these services.  We are the ones who click through the "terms of service" and "privacy policy" documents without reading them so we can get our hands on cool free stuff, we are the ones who are glad to entrust our intimate exchanges to technology we don't understand.

A certain amount of naiveté about the security and privacy implications of the tools we use is understandable here.  When I've given presentations on email privacy and security issues, some attendees are legitimately gasping at the new understanding that their e-mail messages are traversing the open internet as plain text messages that can potentially be read by any number of parties involved in the management of those servers and networks.  The average user probably assumes that the Internet was designed from the ground up to be a robust and secure way of conducting financial transactions and sending suggestive photos of themselves to amorous contacts.

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A website is not a marketing strategy

Is building a website the same thing as building a marketing strategy? It's understandable that people have started to confuse the two.

With so many amazing online marketing tools available and (in many industries) a shift away from traditional marketing media like printed materials, marketing for many businesses and organizations has become an activity that largely takes place on the web. It's easy to start thinking of using those online tools as analogous to creating a plan for marketing.

But just like a more traditional printed brochure, billboard or phonebook ad, a website is a tool that you use to implement your marketing strategy and communicate about your brand. You can't build an effective organizational website without having a marketing strategy in place first any more than you can give a great speech without first having something compelling to say.

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The Palladium-Item Paywall

At the beginning of September, the Palladium-Item newspaper in Richmond implemented what many other newspapers have in recent years, a "paywall" that requires users to have a paid subscription when viewing more than a certain number of articles per month on the paper's website.  The paper launched some new features with their digital subscription, including a tablet version and new mobile versions.

I think this approach is a great thing, and is probably something they should have done a long time ago.  Here's why.

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Stand With Main Street ads and taxing online commerce

You might open a newspaper soon to see an ad like the one at right which appeared in my local paper a few days ago.  It encourages you to "Stand With Main Street" to protest "special treatment" of Amazon.com that allows them to forgo the collection of sales tax on online purchases, resulting in an unfair advantage over "every Hoosier brick and mortar retailer."  I don't usually see full-page ads related to Internet commerce in a market this size, so I thought I'd investigate the issues at stake.

The question of taxing e-commerce transactions is a bit complicated to be sure.  If you have a strong and concisely-worded position on it, you're probably running for national political office, or a Libertarian, or both.

On one hand we can see the clear financial and psychological advantage that an online retailer has with customers who are weighing a purchase from a local store that charges tax against an online store that doesn't, and maybe offers the item at a slightly lower price too. At the same time, that online retailer may be benefitting from the infrastructure that sales taxes others are collecting help pay for (setting up warehouses, trucking goods around state roads, etc.).

On the other hand, we know that laws around state sales taxation were created prior to the age of the Internet and that the models of online business and affiliate sales have completely changed the way the world does business, and current attempts to rewrite them in order to create short-term bandaids on ailing state economies are probably not in the best interest of business innovation, especially when they favor large retailers (online and off) and send small businesses and people who make a living as Amazon.com or eBay affiliates into a quagmire of tax collection bureaucracy.

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