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- Civics Lessons
I spent most of seventh and eighth grade with an encyclopedia tucked beneath my desk. For some reason, I found reading about obscure things like fissionable yellowcake uranium and biographies of random personalities (though always in alphabetical order) to be more interesting than the history or social studies lesson of the day. I did well enough on the tests that my teachers did not bother me about the extracurricular reading, but it seems I missed some of the finer points during civics class. For example, it was not until I began to study the Telecom Act (well after I finished law school) that I began to appreciate the distinctions between Federal and state law and their respective jurisdictions.
This week, I learned another lesson, slightly related to civics but apparently (if not unfortunately) one that arises in government administration. Specifically: if you diffuse responsibility and authority broadly enough across multiple agencies, no single entity can be held accountable to achieve desired outcomes. A related lesson: the articulation of goals must include a determination, at the outset, of standards by which success will be measured. And, finally: the allocation of responsibility among different entities for a single project can result in one agency disclaiming liability because “We were ready, but the tasks assigned to the other agency were not completed.”
The forum in which I noted these aphorisms was a meeting to discuss issues related to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It was the second such gathering I had attended in as many weeks, which collectively included representatives from various industries, including telecom, power, and shipping, that are required to obtain clearance before commencing various construction projects. I was able to feel some empathy; several years ago I completed an environmental assessment for a company that wanted to site a tower in an historic district. The project required the demolition of four buildings, some of which had been condemned by the city as unfit for habitation. The neighbors desired the tower because the landscaping and fencing would create an aesthetically more pleasing sight at street level than the boarded-up, dilapidated houses. The major obstacle was moving the application over the State Historic Preservation Office (the carrier eventually built the tower; buildings, however historic they may be, in which no one is interested in rehabilitating are a weak defense).
There is space and need for NEPA, but there are growing calls for more rational application of the law. As one expert noted, NEPA was intended to be a quick way to predict (and thus avoid) the sort of impacts that might otherwise be noticeable only a post hoc basis. Over time, it has become a tangled, burdensome monster that itself can become an overwhelming process.
Maine Senator Angus King offered a perspective on how NEPA has evolved:
G0d called Moses to His office and said, “I have good news and bad news.” Moses, ever faithful, asked for the good news first.
“The good news is that I will split the Red Sea. Your people will cross safely over a dry riverbed and emerge unscathed at the other side. When the last person has reached the opposite shore, I will release the waters and drown Pharaoh and his pursuing armies. Your people will be saved and continue safely to the promised land.”
Moses rubbed his chin and asked optimistically, “So, what’s the bad news?”
“You’ll need to prepare the environmental impact statement.”
- Radio a Strong Second in Media Consumption, Nielsen Reports
The average American consumed 14 hours per week of radio in 2012, placing it second behind only traditional television (35 hours per week) in all media consumed, Nielsen reported in a report released last week.
“The average American consumed almost 60 hours of content each week across TV, radio, online and mobile in 2012,” Nielsen wrote in the report, “A Look Across Media: The Cross-Platform Report Q3 2013.” “Of the many mediums, radio remains a constant in our daily lives. The average American radio listener tunes in to radio over two hours per day (or 14 hours per week), making it the second-most consumed form of media after TV.”
Using the Internet on a computer was the third most consumed media, averaging 5.1 hours per week. Video on the Internet and game consoles were tied for fourth at 1.5 hours weekly, followed by video on mobile and DVD/Blu-Ray (1.3 hours per week each.)
The Nielsen report went on to stress the potential benefits radio has to offer marketers. “[T]he hyper local nature of audio offers advertisers community-level engagement between content and in-store activity. Often timely, radio spots can catch listeners right before they make their purchase decisions, and an impactful radio spot can inform and influence these decisions.”
- Barnes & Noble’s/Nook’s Future?
You don’t need to be a voracious reader to know that brick-and-mortar bookstores have what one could charitably call a “questionable future.” This bums me out, as a guy who likes to unplug and occasionally undertake pursuits that do not involve electronic devices. I like to hang out at bookstores, drink coffee, walk the aisles and flip though actual paper books and magazines that do not need electricity, battery power or software updates. At least two bookstores that I used to walk by on my way to work have been replaced with trendy clothing stores. Since I have what one could charitably call “an awful fashion sense”, I did not view these developments as at all positive, and I have never been in these clothing stores to update my wardrobe.
Barnes & Noble has had a tough few years. It got worse when the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) recently announced an investigation into the company’s accounting practices. It is just an allegation, of course, but as this writer states, the SEC believes that “some [of Barnes and Noble’s] Information Technology expenses had been ‘improperly allocated’ between the Nook and Retail segments.” Again, it’s just an allegation, but the only time a corporate executive wants to see the letters “SEC” is if he is a college football fan.
As the article linked above also notes, the SEC investigation was revealed less than a week after Amazon (maker of the Kindle) CEO Jeff Bezos was on 60 minutes touting how amazing the company is and how he’s testing same-day package delivery via drone. Yep, a drone.
Overall, not a confidence-inspiring week for Barnes & Noble. The good news is that Barnes & Noble has decided to continue making e-readers/tablets, after initially announcing that the company was discontinuing that line of business. It recently released the Nook GlowLight e-reader which, like the Kindle Paperwhite e-reader, is supposed to look more like a real book, with a white background and margins.
One nice feature of the Nook is that tech support services are available at the brick-and-mortar stores, which I tend to visit as often as I can. What’s got me leaning towards any of these e-readers is that they are light, inexpensive, and easy to use. I can use them when I travel and still have money left over for buying actual books.
If you have read my articles in this space (Hi Dad!), you’re probably aware that while I love technology, I feel some nostalgia for a less-connected time. I’m 39, so I do remember a pre-Internet-pre-devices age. I also like anything (real books, magazines, tools) that doesn’t have an “on/off” switch.
Most importantly, while I have a slight yearning for a different way of doing things, notice I don’t use the phrasing “simpler life.” It sure as heck wasn’t simple to do research before the Internet. While I laughed when I came across this blog post on the “Tyranny of Technology,” I don’t yearn for a typewriter.
To be clear, I am not endorsing either the Nook Glowlight or the Kindle Paperwhite; I’m still not settled on one over the other. The point is that each appeal to a different group of consumers, not just due to their technical features but because Nook users may tend to, like me, continue visiting the brick-and-mortar bookstores and reading actual paper books. The technology will continue to change, but whether you want to be totally unplugged or you’re “all in” on electronic devices, the simple joy of reading, of being transported in your mind to a different world, can be done with or without technology. So, while I once dismissed e-readers, I now see how silly that truly was. It’s going to be fun to watch the battle between these two devices, but whether Barnes & Noble or Amazon win, I’m going to root for the brick-and-mortar store every time.
- Do Data Traffic Projections Account for Usage-Based Pricing?
Video traffic is expected to increase by 720% and cloud/data center traffic is expected to increase by 440% by 2017, according to a Bell Labs study that was released last week. The study provides a number of other broadband traffic projections as well. This kind of data is helpful, although the message it conveys is nothing new. Broadband usage demands are rising rapidly and projections can help service providers to anticipate how much more capacity networks will be required to handle in just a few short years.
However, last week also saw the expansion of usage-based broadband pricing as Comcast extended its 300 gigabyte (GB) per month cap to its XFINITY customers in Maine. Customers can purchase additional blocks of 50 GB for $10 a month. This is the same pricing structure that Comcast uses in Huntsville and Mobile, Ala.; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Ga.; Central Kentucky; Jackson, Miss; Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn.; and Charleston, S.C.
Customers in these areas also may opt into a Flexible-Data rate designed for light Internet users. This rate provides a $5 credit if a customer’s total monthly data usage is less than or equal to 5 GB per month. However, if these customers use more than 5 GB of data in any given month, they would not receive the $5 credit, and would be charged $1 per gigabyte for each gigabyte of data used over the 5 GB included in the Flexible-Data Option.
While characterized as a trial, Comcast’s usage-based pricing is expanding, and it is not the only carrier to charge in this manner. Usage-based pricing remains uncommon among smaller providers at the moment. However, many are considering this model in order to recover high transport and other costs. Many providers view unlimited usage as an important differentiator in the marketplace, especially compared to wireless and satellite providers. Yet as traditional cost recovery mechanisms become increasingly unreliable, additional smaller providers may become more inclined to follow Comcast’s example.
What remains unclear is whether the rapid increase in data consumption will continue at its current pace if usage-based pricing becomes more common. Typically, those carriers that institute usage-based pricing set caps that the vast majority of their users are not likely to exceed. However, if customers fear they will hit the caps and incur extra charges, will they significantly curtail the rate of growth of their broadband usage? And if so, will that impact the outlooks on traffic demand and the need to accommodate such rapid growth? The entire industry is watching usage-based pricing such as the policy installed by Comcast, hoping to gain more insight into future pricing structures and consumer demand.