A pig in a poke no more: my students rate the ISPs (2)


As we discussed last time, shopping for an ISP is a fraught endeavor. The numbers you get, if you can get them, never sit still for long. And even if they do, making comparisons between ISPs as you look for a deal is usually all apples and oranges. Ironic when you consider that this kind of competitive product research has become a way of life for North American shoppers, precisely because of how readily information can be obtained online. 

The “up to…” gotcha

For their ISP reports, our student investigators had one other task after getting plan details: capturing actual speeds from their current ISP so as to compare them to advertised speeds. Like the other information gathering on this assignment, the speed tests have a dual purpose. One is to sharpen the student’s grasp of technical concepts; the other is to sharpen their assessment of the ISP’s performance.

Tests of the kind we’re interested in typically measure three variables: download speed; upload speed; and latency (see below). One of the tricky features of advertised broadband speeds is that ISPs always qualify them as “up to” – no guarantees. There are many reasons for this, legit and otherwise. Continue reading

A pig in a poke no more: my students rate the ISPs


The carrier hotel at 151 Front St West, Toronto, the meeting point for dozens of ISPs and other network operators

“75% of respondents to PIAC’s survey did not know the speed tier to which they subscribe even though 83% of consumers identified download speed as very important or somewhat important when choosing an ISP for their home.”  –Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), Ottawa, January 2013 – Transparency in Broadband Advertising to Canadian Consumers (pdf)


Like the great majority of the online population, even 20-something communications studies majors have little or no clue what they’re buying from their ISP. That’s why we talk a lot about ISPs in my classes. They’re the main contact point for most people with the public Internet. They’re also the key to understanding what broadband is, how regulation works (or doesn’t), and how gatekeeping is exercised.

One challenge in helping undergrads understand how the Internet works (not just the technology, but the policy and business perspectives as well) is that there’s no textbook. Good sources have to be cobbled together, and there’s often a trade-off to be made between what’s topical and what’s authoritative. So when I went looking for a more engaging kind of written assignment a few months ago, I figured why not have the students develop the data themselves. Send them out to the field – well, at least as far as the living room – to find out exactly what they’re getting from their current ISP, then see if they could do better from the competition. Continue reading

Moronic multitaskers vs digital natives: the smartphone crisis


First impressions are important

“The single biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.” –Marc Prensky, 2001 (creator of the “digital natives” concept)

“Multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.” –Clifford Nass, 2009


Almost four years ago, I launched a radical new approach to teaching my courses. I began confiscating student phones for the duration of every class.

blank-face-2Let’s pretend her name was Kathy. I kept issuing the usual pleas to her – and everyone – to stay off their phones, as it’s hard to participate in a seminar discussion when you’re typing Facebook likes. Kathy was worse than most, so I moved her to a seat directly in front of the lab podium. But even when I was hovering, she kept typing furiously, like I was invisible. She was the last straw. Neither my ego nor my pedagogy could take it any more.


Where phones go to facilitate the learning process (COMN 4520)

Around the time I started my full frontal phone attack, I posted the first of three items on dumb things you can do with smartphones, in September 2011. I took it for granted that thousands of other instructors faced the same problem every time they walked into a classroom. But I figured I had a particularly good reason for my phone strategy. I was teaching liberal arts undergrads how the Internet works. Continue reading

Broadband as a basic service: be careful what you wish for (4)


[This post continues from the previous one, comparing the FCC and CRTC approaches to the principle of universality, and finding the CRTC’s approach to broadband puts this principle at risk.]


For my money, the key lesson we can take from Chairman Wheeler’s FCC lies in the willingness to admit when they’ve got a big problem on their hands. The FCC spends little time reflecting on its successes, compared to worrying about how they will correct market failures and right social injustices. In that spirit, Wheeler’s recent statement on the new Lifeline proceeding gets straight to the main issue: “…nearly 30% of Americans still don’t have broadband at home, and low-income consumers disproportionately lack access.”

Compare that blunt admission to the CRTC’s habit of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. The rosy glow is not confined to decisions; it’s also been a feature of the CRTC’s research documents. Take last year’s Communications Monitoring Report on telecommunications (pdf uploaded here). Turning to the section on the Internet market sector and broadband availability (p.171), the reader is hard-pressed to see that anything is amiss in this parallel universe. Continue reading

Broadband as a basic service: be careful what you wish for (3)


I’m taking a further shot in this post at the question of the decade: should Ottawa guarantee Internet access to all Canadians?

This question is now drawing a great deal of attention. In April, the CRTC launched a new proceeding to review “basic telecommunications services.” As I wrote previously:

“The most important single question to be addressed in this proceeding is whether the time has come to start treating a broadband connection to the Internet as an essential service to be provided to all our citizens, just as we have done for decades in the provision of basic telephone service.”

As luck would have it, that is exactly the issue the FCC voted to examine on June 18: FCC Takes Steps to Modernize and Reform Lifeline for Broadband.”

Nevertheless, the two agencies see what is at stake in very different terms. These differences are evident in a comparison of the relevant public notices and agency research documents. My reading indicates our American friends are way ahead of us in the assumptions they’ve made about the public interest, as well as in the tools at their disposal to make a success of this epic broadband venture. Continue reading

Rebooting basic services: hope for policy reform? (2)


New ideas for policy reform from Bell


Update on other reactions to Turcke/Bell (1:10pm): Pete Nowak has his own biting critique in yesterday’s post – If VPN use is theft, then Bell’s CraveTV is extortion. And over at OpenMedia.ca, Josh Tabish has stirred up some really unfriendly reactions on Facebook about the whole fiasco – 181 315 and counting. (When I showed the FP article to my teenage daughter, her eye-rolling reaction was, OMG, as if using a VPN is hacking.)

As I suggested in my last post, some of the conclusions reached at the Rebooting conference will be echoed in the current CRTC proceeding on basic service objectivesDespite all the compelling reasons for reform, however, numerous barriers stand in the way. Some of those discussed at the conference will certainly play a continuing role in the broadband proceeding…

1 – No political will or vision. Short of improbable legislative change, we need something the Harper government is incapable of formulating: a national digital strategy. The CRTC suggested the need for a national strategy six years ago in its new media decision (2009-329, para 78). What we got from the Tories instead was a lousy marketing brochure. Even the opposition parties seem to regard our broadband future as unworthy of serious attention. Continue reading

Rebooting basic telecom services: hope for policy reform?



The recent Rebooting conference in Ottawa was a terrific experience. Lots of people with lots of good ideas and the opportunity to debate them at length.

cbc_logo_1940_1958Oversimplifying a little, I would divide the conference participants into two general groups. The first and larger of the two was reform-minded, with many calling for serious changes, especially to the CRTC. The second group, while smaller, was just as eloquent in defending what I’d call the status quo. By that I mean maintaining or expanding subsidies for program production; a bigger role for the CBC; and measures explicitly designed to protect broadcasters with a view, among other things, to protecting jobs in the broadcast sector. This perspective tended to cast the socio-cultural objectives of the Broadcasting Act in a favorable light.

My six minutes of fame featured a half dozen reasons as to why there’s an urgent need to reboot the Broadcasting Act, and in particular to redraw the policy goals in section 3 from the ground up.

Why we need reform

1 – The 1991 Act is older than the Web. One simple argument for reform is chronological. The 1991 Act predates the Web by six months: the first publicly available Web page was posted on the Internet in August 1991. Worse still, most of section 3 is based on what became law in 1968 – 47 years ago! The main difference is that the current version is over three times longer and now refers to “programs” and “programming” 31 times. Continue reading

Broadband speeding up, broadcast TV slowing down?



This morning brought news that the CRTC has launched a national broadband measurement initiative using the SamKnows platform (“The global leaders in broadband measurement“). The announcement comes hard on the heels of Michael Geist’s Tuesday post entitled Missing the Target: Why Does Canada Still Lack a Coherent Broadband Goal? Ironically, after his well taken lament, the Commission suddenly seems ready to answer Michael’s question – though not in the way some of us might like.

“The CRTC is recruiting up to 6,200 Canadians to help measure the Internet services provided by the participating ISPs. Volunteers will receive a device, called a “Whitebox”, that they will connect to their modem or router. The Whitebox will periodically measure broadband performance, testing a number of parameters associated with the broadband Internet connection, including download and upload speeds.”

On this Commission page, the visitor is offered some details, including how to sign up. In a discussion with some other folks today, there was agreement that the Commission is going to have to work hard to attract mainstreamers who have no technical background. To do so, the project team is going to have to take a more didactic approach, and give up self-congratulatory marketing lingo like a “world-class communication system.” Continue reading