Review: Netgear Orbi wireless mesh router

To date I've remained a loyal user of an ASUS router at my home (despite some early bumps in the road). After moving to a larger house earlier this year and finding some spots with degraded or unusable wi-fi, I decided it was time to explore the latest offerings in wireless mesh routers. I was drawn to the idea of having comprehensive coverage managed by a unified setup (instead of using extenders) and was also excited to see if anyone had disrupted the space of home network management.

The system I tried first, Netgear's Orbi Router & Satellite Extender system, definitely offers seamless wireless coverage, but holds on to so many of the problems of traditional home network router management that I'm sending it back.

I'd been researching different vendor offerings and had narrowed it down to products from Netgear (Orbi), Eero, and Ubiquiti (Amplifi or Unifi). This Wirecutter article seemed to reach out from the Internet gods and speak directly to me with definitive advice about what to buy:

For the tech-savvy, Netgear’s Orbi is the only mesh kit we tested that provides the features of a high-end router, from port forwarding to static routing, along with plenty of Ethernet ports on both units; it’s also one of the few that don’t require an Internet connection to set up or control your network. Orbi is the mesh kit that’s most like a router-and-extender combo, without the drawbacks that usually come with that setup.

I'm tech-savvy! I want a high-end router with advanced features! I don't want to depend on an Internet connection or "cloud" services to manage my network! I don't want drawbacks! I was sold, and bought the RBK50 kit (one base router unit and one satellite extender unit - not truly a mesh system as much as the beginnings of a hub/spoke system, but who's keeping track?).

The unboxing experience was quite pleasant and everything was clearly labeled, though I may have said a colorful word or two when I saw how large each these two units are - you'd think I'd bought a new food processor or something.

My disappointment came soon after.

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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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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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The end* of website development as a profession

Glass Art at Indy Art Center

In the beginning was the <blink> tag

In 1997 I co-founded a company whose business model was based on the value of building highly customized websites for our clients.  Those clients often didn't know (or want to know) much about the inner workings of HTML, Photoshop, hyperlinks and web hosting, but they knew that the World Wide Web and the Internet represented a new era of marketing and communications, and it was worth paying someone else to figure those details out so that they could be a part of that in some form.

And so in a time before content management software, Google, PayPal or GoDaddy, we - like other web development companies starting to pop up around the world - built websites, online stores and interactive community tools from scratch.  At first we hand-coded sites in HotDog Pro or BBEdit, and then later used Dreamweaver and Fireworks.  We created complex software applications using Perl, and others used PHP, Python, TCL and C.  We tested for compatibility with Netscape and Internet Explorer, and we submitted links to AltaVista for crawling when we were done.

That model evolved as we went and worked pretty well until around 2008, when we saw the maturity of many new "software as a service" offerings and a bunch of off-the-shelf tools and programs that often made custom website development unnecessary, or at least seen as too costly in the eyes of clients who once had few other choices.  We also saw the focus on developing an online presence shift away from "doing it right" to "doing it quickly" - edgy, authentic and in-progress began to trump polished and highly produced.

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Everything on the Internet is Free!

Brian Keith Whalen rocking out at the Starr Gennett Walk of FameAfter my post this past weekend about why I think paying for access to local news reporting is worth it, I checked out some of the reasons that people who were complaining about said fees were giving for not wanting to pay.  Chief among them was the argument that "if it's on the Internet, it should be free!"

I hadn't previously thought about how mainstream that line of thinking probably is right now.  But it makes sense.  The dominant business model for so many Internet resources over the last several years has been to give away access to tools, content or other things and then either sell advertising or sell a "premium" version (Wired magazine had a good story on this trend back in February of 2008 if you want to see how much it's taken hold even in that short time).

People are used to learning of some new service or app, putting in their e-mail address and picking a password (if that much), and they're off and running to use the shiny new thing.  Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, Google let users spend all day using up their resources at no charge.  You can download high quality web browsers and entire office software suites for free.  Pandora lets you listen to and discover great music all day long for free.  There are paid apps in mobile app stores, but the free or $0.99 ones get most of the attention.

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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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The Social Network

I saw the movie The Social Network tonight, here are my spoiler-free comments.

The movie was incredibly well made.  Aaron Sorkin's writing was as good as the best days of The West Wing, each member of the cast seemed to just nail their role, the editing was some of the best I've seen, and so on.

Perhaps most enjoyably, this is a mainstream movie that is at least in part about the culture and goings-on in the modern world of Internet entrepreneurship, I believe the first of its kind. It fully embraces the geekiness that was and is a part of building a web application like Facebook: in the first 30 minutes, the Apache webserver software project is mentioned at least twice, there are dramatic lines about needing more Linux webservers running MySQL, there are punchlines that involve the emacs text editor, and scenes of glorious code writing marathons - wow.

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