It Is Way Past the Time to Update the Communications Act of 1996

social media
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

If you have been using the Internet for the past 25 years, you know how radically it has changed. And yet, no comprehensive regulations have been updated since then.

The news is full of complaints about tech companies getting too big and too powerful. Social media is often the focus of complaints. We often hear that these companies are resistant to changes and regulations, but that is not entirely true. 

On Facebook's site concerning regulations, they say "To keep moving forward, tech companies need standards that hold us all accountable. We support updated regulations on key issues."

Facebook may be at the center of fears and complaints, but they keep growing. Two billion users and growing.

There are four issues that address that they feel need new regulations.

Combating foreign election interference
We support regulations that will set standards around ads transparency and broader rules to help deter foreign actors, including existing US proposals like the Honest Ads Act and Deter Act.

Protecting people’s privacy and data
We support updated privacy regulations that will set more consistent data protection standards that work for everyone.

Enabling safe and easy data portability between platforms
We support regulation that guarantees the principle of data portability. If you share data with one service, you should be able to move it to another. This gives people choice and enables developers to innovate.

Supporting thoughtful changes to Section 230
We support thoughtful updates to internet laws, including Section 230, to make content moderation systems more transparent and to ensure that tech companies are held accountable for combatting child exploitation, opioid abuse, and other types of illegal activity.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in almost 62 years. Its main goal was stated as allowing "anyone [to] enter any communications business -- to let any communications business compete in any market against any other." The FCC said that they believed the Act had "the potential to change the way we work, live and learn." They were certainly correct in that. But they continued that they expected that it would affect "telephone service -- local and long distance, cable programming and other video services, broadcast services and services provided to schools."

And it did affect those things. But communications went much further and much faster than the government and now they need to play some serious catchup. It is much harder to catch up than it is to keep up. 

 

Cut the Cord, Narrow the Stream, Reconnect

data streams
Image by Yan Wong

A few years ago I was writing about how a lot of people were looking to save money on their TV entertainment by what was known as "cutting the cord" since it meant disconnecting from a cable service. Those services had boomed in the 1970s and 80s and had brought clear channels from local and distant services and led to the rise of services like HBO and Showtime. People are still cord-cutting, but things have changed.

We tired of $100+ per month channel bundles that included lots of channels we never watched. People wanted a cafeteria-style choice. Just pick the things you wanted. But cable companies didn't want to offer that. So, people began to drop their cable contract and replace it with streaming TV services and perhaps a TV antenna or device that offered local channels, news, and a kind of all-in-one bundle.

In 2015, I wrote about a group of people that I called "The Disconnected" and I did a presentation on how we might connect to the disconnected. The disconnections ranged from cord-cutting to ownership of things (home, cars, physical media) and possibly from education and the world. Since then, I have added other disconnected aspects of our lives.

The pandemic that forced disconnections in early 2020 has accelerated some of that. Ironically, as disconnected as we became to friends, offices, campuses and stores, most of us became more connected to media.

Cord-cutters still needed an Internet service and that connection became quite critical in these pandemic times. We needed it to continue working, learning and staying in touch with other people. Those connections are very important, but I also have been thinking about how connected we have become to those streaming services on our screens for entertainment.

The tech divide either got wider the past year or minimally became more obvious. Home Internet speeds should be at least 15Mbps (megabits per second) for each device you plan to have running at the same time. That means that those two TVs, the laptop and three smartphones and one tablet all playing at once would ideally have a connection of at least 105Mbps. That’s a lot to ask of a DSL or satellite service and from most cable company broadband services. Those people with access to fiber broadband or some other fast connection had a big advantage.

It is now almost a decade from dropping your cable connection and moving to streaming and now I am hearing more people complain about the cost of buying all the services needed to keep up with the content that all your friends are telling are essential viewing. 

What is the cost of having Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Peacock, and others and also a bundle of live TV channels such as YouTube TV or Sling TV?

Yes, there are a bunch of free (ad-based) sources of streaming video too (Crackle, IMDb, Kanopy, Peacock, Hoopla, Pluto TV, the Roku Channel, Tubi TV, Vudu, etc.). 

You might also want a streaming device that connects to the Internet and allows you to show things on devices on bigger screens (Chromecast, Roku’s Streaming Stick, or Amazon’s Fire TV Stick. 

At one time, I could watch Disney films on Netflix, but Disney and most of the other content providers have now decided that they are better off offering their content on their own services. YouTube TV recently was removed from Roku. Battles will continue.

If you cut the cord, will you soon need to cut or narrow the streams flowing into your home?

The Last Bookstore on Earth

closed bookstore

My title - The Last Bookstore on Earth - sounds like science-fiction. In 2021, it is sci-fi future thinking, but it might well be true in 2071 and I wouldn't be shocked if it turns out to be true much sooner. We know that physical bookstores have been closing ever since Amazon and the age of online booksellers began.

This past weekend was Independent Bookstore Day and brick and mortar bookstores still have ardent supporters - me included - but it's tough to keep a store going just selling books. The pandemic didn't help them, but the pandemic did help online book sales.

There is a whole bookshelf worth of "the end of" books. I have read three: The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking), The End of Historyand The End of Science. Of course, all those things are still going

Some young people may not know that Amazon.com started as a bookstore, but it fairly quickly expanded and now (especially by using third-party suppliers) it seems to sell everything and threatens not only bookstores but all kinds of stores.

My inspiration to write today came from watching the documentary The Last Blockbuster on Netflix. It tells the story of Blockbuster Video, the video rental company that put many independent video rental stores out of business. One way it did that was by making distribution deals with film studios.

It is an interesting history because movies on video were at first seen as a threat to movie theaters. That initial fear turned out to be less threatening than first thought because there were still plenty of people who wanted to see movies on a big screen and when they were released rather than months later when they hit video. This path has been traveled again, especially in the past pandemic year, with closed theaters and greatly increased streaming video use.

There were several indie video stores in my neighborhood when Blockbuster opened a large store. The indies could not compete with the wide selection and many deals. (About the only thing the indies could offer was pornography which was not in Blockbuster.)  Blockbuster had made revenue-share deals and so could negotiate lower prices than their local stores in exchange for a cut of the rental fees.

There is a nice irony in The Last Blockbuster being released by Netflix which wiped out the video stores of all sizes and helped wipe out the DVD market too.

But Netflix doesn't own the streaming business anymore. Hulu, Apple, Disney and Amazon Prime are examples of services that not only offer subscriptions but also additional rentals and, most significantly, are funding original content that they will own exclusively. Media companies, such as CBS, Paramount, that sold content to places like Netflix have now started their own streaming services and let their deals with the older services lapse.

VCRs were replaced by DVRs which are being pushed aside by streaming. Netflix pushed aside stores and DVDs. Online booksellers hurt bookstores, though most now offer online purchasing and during the pandemic offered curbside pickup and some offered virtual author events and readings.

People will return to movie theaters as pandemic restrictions disappear. People who went to bookstores to browse will return too. Students who were learning online for the past year are returning to their classrooms and predictions are that they will be back to a kind of normal this fall. But all of these institutions and businesses are changing because of moves online that occurred either because of technological evolution or pandemic necessity.

I hope the idea of the "last bookstore" is just an idea and that some online service will never be able to make a video about it.
 

 

Reading on Screens Revisited

1935 ebook idea
An electronic book as imagined in 1935

I recently came across an article in Smithsonian magazine that was rather deceptively titled "The iPad of 1935." The illustration above comes from that article and originally appeared in the April 1935 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics magazine. At that time they were thinking that since it is possible to photograph books and also project them on a screen for examination, that perhaps this would be the way we would read. Their illustration is probably closer to watching a PowerPoint presentation than an iPad, but the idea of putting books on a screen is not just an idea of the 21st century.

That article made me do a search on this blog to see what I have written about ebooks. In 2012, I wrote about digital textbooks ("Can Schools Adopt Digital Textbooks By 2017?") I should have revisited that article in 2017 to see what had come to pass. In 2020, I can say that publishers, schools and students have adopted ebooks and digital textbooks, but there are still plenty of books on paper being used by students.

That 1935 contraption uses a roll of miniature film with pages as the "book." It reminds me of the microfilm readers I used as an undergraduate in the library. As the article notes: "microfilm had been patented in 1895 and first practically used in 1925; the New York Times began copying its every edition onto microfilm in 1935."

It took about 70 more years for handheld digital readers that we use to come on the scene and the transition is still taking place.

Though I have an iPad and a Kindle, my home and office are still filled with paper books and magazines. I would say that the bulk of my daily reading is done on a screen but the screen is on my phone and laptop. When I have taught college classes online or on-site, I have offered texts as ebooks when possible as an option. I still find that some students prefer a Gutenberg-style book on paper.

That 2012 post of mine referenced an article about the then Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski issuing a challenge to schools and publishers to get digital textbooks to students by 2017.

In 2012, there was a "Digital Learning Day" where there were discussions on transitioning K-12 schools to digital learning and using technology to transform how teachers teach and students learn inside and outside of the classroom. They issued "The Digital Textbook Playbook" guide which went far beyond textbooks and included information about determining broadband infrastructure for schools and classrooms, leveraging home and community broadband to extend the digital learning environment and understanding necessary device considerations along with some "lessons learned" from school districts that had engaged in successful transitions to digital learning. The 2012 playbook can be downloaded and it's interesting to see what has changed in the 8 years since it was written. Those changes would include a new administration with different objectives from the Obama era.

The playbook defines a "true digital textbook" as "an interactive set of learning content and tools accessed via a laptop, tablet, or other advanced device." Being that this effort was on K-12, the perspectives of key users was students, teachers, and parents.