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“Cable Television: The Near-Term Contender for Information Utility in Your Town”, MS Thesis, Telecommunications, CU Bouder,  1982.   Long winded title for a pretty basic idea: find unused bandwidth on cable television systems and recycle it into a datacommunications conduit, then add on a range of computer services for sale.   Pretty much like today’s Internet ASP (Application Service Provider) actually.

As the thesis developed, (the idea originated as a class paper in … the Telecom program) it happened that I was lucky enough  to be doing some consulting with the eventual winner of the Denver cable franchise, in aid of their proposal.  My part was to come up with ideas for interesting centralized computer service bureau applications  that would be served up to the homes via the cable, the same cable you get tv from.

The resultant portion of ATC’s (American Cable Television, part of Time/Life, now part of Time/Warner) successful franchise  bid, having to do with those “interesting” services is Appendix A in the thesis.

At my last update some years ago, none of those clever interesting ideas ever came to fruition as planned;  a good number of them are now available via the internet.

You have to recall that this centralized model was (more or less) before the PC era, and (generally) before the internet  era; as it happened, I was in on the very early internet from my post in Boulder.  I recall the flap about TCP/IP when it was the “new protocol”, and I have hard copies of some very early Usenet (the much more  casual Unix to Unix network, based on dial up modems of modest speed, still in existence as part of the general internet) 

 The cable idea came to me when I was trying to hook up some of my users, “all the way” from the CU East campus to the  Main campus, about a mile away.  The prevalent speed was 1200 bps (compared to common internet access at 56kbps) then, so we were looking at different ways to hook up terminals on the Main campus to our  research computer.  One day I observed a cable tv coax cable outside, and after following it down the street and over to the Main campus, I figured it ought to be easy to piggy back on one of its “extra” 6 Mhz (standard TV channel; the T carrier system is built to convey TV also from the pre-satellite days. One TV Channel will fit into a T-2, itself equal to 4 T-1 channels.

Compared to a single phone line’s worth of data speed, a single cable channel is huge.  What the exact bandwidth to data speed conversion is exactly (theoretical is 2x, meaning 6 Mhz will carry 12 Mbits; depends on several factors), but roughly, a TV channel is about the same as an Ethernet channel. EACH

of your (anywhere from 40-400+) TV channels is an “Ethernet’s worth” of bandwidth; after I figured that out, I was a  dedicated “Broadband bigot”.  Turns out that the market winner was/is the inefficient one, Ethernet, arguably because Ethernet was adapted to much cheaper (than coax) twisted pair wiring (i.e., telephone wire).  Now with Gigabit and 10 Gig Ethernet, it looks like there is no reason to use the more complicated solutions which involve multiplexing (and de-multiplexing) the various channels.

In the wide area, the current rage is multiplexing at the Optical wavelength level, so the general idea (e.g., getting  multiple logical channels out of a single cable) is, again, generally vindicated.  The cross country cable plant is naturally much more of a cost factor than within a building or even a city.

While the general question of feasibility (i.e., the ability to perform datacommunications  on a Cable TV system) was a specified assumption, the question became one of exploring legal issues, management, and even the “comfort zone” of the Cable TV industry (e.g., they can understand Disney, but back then, they had no idea what a cable modem was, nor what it might be good for.)

My personal favorite idea in the thesis has to do with the legal acquisition of the cable channel in the first place, the  question of common carriage (i.e.,  being a common carrier, of which Telephone companies, trucks, airplanes and buses are examples) and what rights are implicit in the fact of our basic legal structure being  rooted in English Common Law.  The proposition, simply is that since the cable company is able to build the cable in the first place as a result of being granted the public franchise (i.e., legal monopoly),  there is an inherent “right of common” on the part of the public. 

A hypothetical company that wants to be a service provider (think ASP again) “ought” to be able to request from the cable  company, on an equal basis with any other member of the general public, physical and logical access as necessary, based on actual availability.  This (my claim) basic right of access is, as of now (but with  several lawsuits in progress at this writing in 2001), granted at the whim of the local cable provider.

AT&T’s cable operation (formerly TCI mostly) is the main holdout on granting access to ISPs (Internet Service Provider)  other than its own.  Seems like a pretty unfair practice if you happen to be one of the other guys.  AT&T is reportedly looking at allowing access, but (recalling from reading the trade papers) is  citing technical reasons (e.g., security, etc.) as the main barriers.

The best model is probably an FCC rule that the carriers cannot ALSO be the content providers, but certainly, at a minimum,  they cannot be the ONLY content providers on a system that was built with money furnished by the public, within the monopoly franchise granted by the public to a cable tv company.  As a society, we’d be stupid  to let them, but so far, they’re getting away with it.

Unix System Mgmt

Along with my Master’s thesis, I include (draft ) of “Computer Management, with emphasis on Unix  (* check this for exactness).  This was originally done as a series of cheat sheets for one of our customers in the days when I was a part owner of a Unix VAR (Value Added Reseller).  Later, I was asked to teach a session or two  on Computer Management while I was the Computer Science computer systems manager at SMU (Southern Methodist University), part of their general CS curriculum. I used my previous cheat sheets as the basis, but expanded the discussion of more general (than Unix) computer topics.

Still later, I realized that as PCs became truly ubiquitous, that EVERY PC owner was now, willy-nilly, also a Computer  System Manager.  So the discussions have morphed somewhat to take note of those situations, and naturally to point out that all the old time system management principles are still in force (e.g., do your backups, etc.).   Having started in computers as a pup in 1967 (I was 19),. courtesy of the US Air Force, I was lucky enough to get in on the “Model T” era of computing.

I recently realized that although I’m still pretty young, having 34 years of computing experience makes me fairly senior,  BUT any number of the kids coming up today will have that much experience by the time they’re 40!  My peculiar mix of experience won’t be there though, so this is an attempt to pass along some of the lessons I’ve learned the hard way, sometimes more than once 8).

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