Archive for April, 2009

Nutshell news

  • The Shoreline no longer uses “Grill” in its name. There’s a new chef, but I’m happy to report that the gumbo and the crabcakes are as fine as ever and, most important of all, chocolate intemperance survives on the dessert menu.
  • Food trailers continue to proliferate on South Congress across East Monroe from the Congress Avenue Baptist Church. The Mighty Cone is an attraction not yet tried, but it’s at the top of the list.
  • KLRU seems to have abandoned its analog viewers already, so no more Little Dorrit for this household, and no more contributions sent to the station, either. Those with older televisions now see what’s being broadcast in a tiny window only. The station has announced that it shut off its analog signal this week, on April 16.
  • Your Living Room, the store selling contemporary home furnishings at 220 South Congress, just over the bridge from downtown, is going out of business. Watch for the final sales. It’s been fourteen years. The store’s Web presence seems to be gone. I worry about the old Tropic Shop neon sign.

Thought for the day #1 – Honker

Seen at the lights on S Lamar bridge this morning, not sure which is worse.

The guy who honked less than 10-seconds after the lights went Green, lets call him Mr Angry in a Mazada MX5 dark gray with the soft top down. Doesn’t he realize the woman in front has a busy social life, sending tweets and txt msgs, scrolling through her phone book to find someone she can call, and it takes more than 10-seconds to get your knees jammed under the steering wheel so you can drive no hands, lets call her Ms Danger-on-4-wheels in her red Datsun.

The joys of the morning commute!

Time Warner Cable, Tiers and tears

Over on austin360.com, Omar Gallaga is reporting that Time Warner Cable have annolunced the tiers they are going to use for capping and overage-charging for their broadband cable offering. For the last couple of weeks this has been a hot topic on the interweb thingy, and has generated piles of bile, some useful analysis but much of it missing the point.

There is no doubt, there are out there amongst us interweb users, some leaches and obsessive, compulsive overachievers. In opposition to the TWC changes people are marching out all sorts of claims and justifications for being big-data users, why they are the “bleeding edge”. What they do today, will be the norm’ in a few years time. Well, that maybe, but probably not.

Time Warner Cables business model is under attack on all fronts. They are doing what all nascent monopolies do when under attack, they push the boundaries of what can get away with. This usually more broad in America than in Europe, because America is the great defender of free enterprise, freedom of choice, and commercial innovation. No amount of facebook pages is going to change that.

Only, we just don’t have any of those things really when it comes to digital communication. Cellphones here in the US are restrictive, expensive, fragmented and fine examples of monopolistic practices. Some of the best cellphones in the world are now crippled when sold outside the US, so that when they are used in the US, they don’t get full network, 3G speeds, meaning the “network” operators can charge and tie you to multi-year contracts, oh and it’s OK coz we get “free” phones.

Cable TV here in the US has hardly changed in 30-years. The addition of HD has been done in a haphazard, fragmented way with no real innovation. Unlike Europe where broadcast, often free to air, HD offers many more channels and multi-screen viewing, interactive services etc. See for example what Sky and the BBC have done with that little red-button in the UK. Why is it for example, that when watching a “home shopping channel” you have to dial 1-800 and wait, press buttons and speak to a person? Broadband, is bi-directional you know…

When the cutover to broadcast HDTV happens here in the US, it will be a pure swap, no new advance services, just the same old channels, mostly showing repeat programs(not in HD) and thats about it. What most Americans will find is that the signal will break up frequently during rain storms and other bad weather thats affects b roadcast quality. Unlike conventional TV(non-digital) though, you won’t get a degraded picture, you’ll get nothing at all.

And so, back to Time Warner Cable. I’m a triple play subscriber. I don’t watch much TV, mostly I record a few shows per week and only watch them on Sunday evenings. I have my home phone service through TWC, although heaven knows why. No one has the number, and I don’t use it for outgoing calls, especially now I don’t work from home. Many people don’t have “home” phones now, they use their Cellphones, I should join them, except my cellphone has no docking station and really isn’t suitable for a 2-hour conference call using any kind of headset.

Here is another example of lack of innovation in the US. When was the last time you saw a phone in the US that was your cellphone when outside the home, and when inside the home, used the broadband service to connect rather than wireless, and allowed you to switch seamlessly between the two as you walk out of the house, without dropping the call?

I think that in the 2.5 years I’ve had my TWC service, I’ve watched maybe 5 on-demand movies. This is an area that most people focus on when analyzing the effects of broadand usage capping by TWC. It’s clear, isn’t it?

TWC have every reason to stop you downloading legally or otherwise, movies from the Internet or watching them online. If they can stop or price that to discourage, THEY can charge you for the same movies, either through subscription channels, or on-demand.

So, lets recap. TWC offers four services:

– Basic cable inc. subscription channels
– Basic internet cable broadband connectivity, soon to be tiered by usage
– Landline telephone service(wired)
– On-demand movies(chargeable)

The threats to their business are:
– Declining use of basic cable, subscription channels and on-demand movies because people get their entertainment elsewhere.
– Telephone service is under attack from cellphones and VOIP, Vonage, Skype etc.
– Basic broadband is underattack from “unlimited” subscription and pre-pay cellphone data plans, 802.11 wireles in coffee shops, down at Austin City hall etc.
– Basic cable is stagnent, uninteresting, overloaded with cheap promotional shows and home shopping networks and 24-hour news channels that basically make the news up as they go along.
– Consumers are also increasingly savy, well you’d hope so. What many realize is that it’s all data. The cable you watch, the telephone calls you make, the on-demand movies, even if you do everything the TWC way, it all arrives and leaves your house as data.

So, here we have a high-noon showdown. The customers don’t understand why part of their data service should be metered and priced seperately from the other parts of the same data connection. The cable company, in this case, TWC, is playing the typical, dumb, fat and happy monopoly that can and will charge as it sees fit, easy things first and trying to paint a small section of their customers as the problem.

TWC should be forced to compete for my business, not get it on a plate. After all, if I don’t subscribe, I can’t get anything back for the ugly, 1920’s style cabling and poles that litter my street, having to have the trees cut back to protect their golden-egg.

First, TWC should be forced to unbundle it’s TV service. The cable channel selections should be offered in more flexible groupings or by individual channels. It is simply way past time this should have been done. I’d pay a premium for about 8-channels total and would prefer more bandwidth than more channels.

Second, the broadband service offered by TWC should be split into two. A bulk data backbone service and a last-mile service. The bulk data backbone service has to be sold, on a tiered/metered service to companies that handle the last-mile service. TWC is more than welcome to compete as a last-mile provider. Yep, this is effectively turning TWC backbone into a “utility” by the back door.

Third, irrespective of the first two, the home telephone service offered by TWC should be unbunlded. If the first two recommendations are adopted, this becomes largely irrelevant as the last-mile providers will need to provide advanced services, or just compete in race-to-the-bottom cheap pricing. If race-to-the-bottom pricing is the only innovation, then overtime TWC will just rebuild it’s monopoly through acquisition. This is exactly what allowed AT&T to come back from near death to semi-monopolist(and yes, I know it’s not the same AT&T and it didn’t really come back, it’s just branding, but the point remains.)

Fourth, again irrespective of the first three, TWC needs to design, develop and deliver REAL digital cable offerings. This isn’t just the same old channels and a 1980’s style programming guide sent down a digital channel. It’s interactive TV; it’s online HD games delivered without a PC or gaming system; it’s an interactive YouTube channel; it’s interactive news; it’s bidirectional video calling; it’s something that America and especially here in Austin we could be proud of.

Arguing about broadband caps/tiering, overage pricing is just missing the point, and will end up in tears in 10-years time, TWC will be the next GM looking for bailouts to subsidize it’s “essential” services. And please Omar, suggesting stimulus money now for TWC is just rubbing salt in.

Austin as college town predicted resistant to downturn

Although this piece went with girls rushing a sorority for its illustration, our own Leslie Cochran is featured as a sort of Austin goodwill ambassador, and this gnomic utterance of his closes the article: “The people of Austin make Austin.”

The premise is that places with large academic institutions weather bad economies better than others and that Austin tends to do best of all.

Find this article in the current issue of Forbes magazine (“Recession Rah-Rah,” bylines Jesse Bogan and Kurt Badenhausen; April 13).

Street Closures, City Staff, and council – Process over people

It’s strange to see democracy in action, or rather process over people. In a response to one person who asked me before the meeting what they had to do to ensure the “event” community won the current battle, I replied, the city process isn’t set up to create winners, it’s there just to make sure there are no losers!

And so it was tonight, at the City Council meeting where the staff recommendations for implementation of the Downtown Street Closure Task Force recommendations were heard. It was public hearing and a large number of people from 4-sides showed up, with a few others including marginalized neighborhood associations.

The Churches were well represented, as were the Race and Event organizers, and the task force members. In addition there were a large number of runners and event participants, but they had been effectively neutered by the race organizers through their emergent AREA organization. The Austin Races and Events Alliance (AREA), had appealed for people to attend but not speak until they’d spoken, probably fearing a backlash similar to the earlier one at the early taskforce meeting.

In the end the meeting was conducted in a relatively orderly and positive fashion, with Mayor Wynn and a number of the speakers enjoying entertaining interaction. After some 2-hours 30-minutes, most of it hearing public testimony, what became clear is that the City staff had turned months of work from the taskforce into a lose-lose-lose situation and wasn’t clear why this was.

The staff recommendations introduced rules like ensuring that Caesar Chavez was ALWAYS open, which the task force had never considered, as far as I know. That, had the Art Austin, 1st Night Austin and many other event promoters and producers losing out. The recommendations did not institute the Special Events office that the Task Force had recommended, thus they were losers. The Churches didn’t get their access needs met and they lost out, and well, the race organizers didn’t get it their way either, so they lost out too.

After the meeting I was asked “did we win?” My answer was, no, but you got what you wanted. What did they want? Well almost no one it seemed wanted it to go ahead as prescribed, and that’s what they got.

What happened was Council Member Leffingwell proposed to adjourn the public hearing and pass the staff proposal on the caveat that the letter submitted by the Task Force would considered and the proposal amended to accommodate. After a small amount of discussion and clarification from council members and Mayor Wynn, thats what they got, approved on first reading with the Leffingwell compromise. 2nd reading with be on either the 23rd or 30th of April, based on City Staff’s ability to meet with Task Force members and incorporate the changes.

However, quite why and how we got to where we did is beyond me? Why would staff come forward with these recommendations that were so out of line with a process that had taken months of compromise? Given that it’s been three of four months for staff to come forward with that, how likely is it that they’ll come back in as little as two weeks with the update thats acceptable to the task force and everyone else?

I found it personally interesting that none of the Mayoral candidates publicly took a stance on this and push it through one way or the other. One can only wonder if they really hope they’ll get the election over and done with before the Street and Event Closure really does claim a loser, the mayoral candidate that backs the wrong horse.

And so it was, process over people. – Oh yeah, before anyone suggests I’m a conspiracy theorist, I’m not. I also know that things don’t happen by accident.

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