Over the Air, PVR, with a Rube Goldberg on Top

I can watch live and recorded TV on my Apple TV! It's very simple.

I installed an Ethernet-connected TV tuner from SiliconDust called HDHomeRun. It's plugged into a digital TV antenna on our roof. Then I use Elgato's eyeTV software on a Mac on the network to schedule and record over-the-air (OTA) programming.

That Mac is downstairs; our TV is upstairs. When I want to watch TV, I just:

The bizarre thing is this whole sequence works.

Giant towers broadcast digital signals that we capture a time slice of and convert into another digital format which are stored on a drive and then streamed over a Wi-Fi network to a mobile device that pushes it over Wi-Fi to tiny box that's connected to an HDTV.

It's as easy as 1, 2, 3…4, 5, 6, 7…8, 9, uh, 10, 11.

Comcasterrific: Bills, Plans, and Caps

A few months ago, I noticed that Comcast had raised its $5/month modem rental fee to $13/month. Normally, I don't rent hardware of any kind, but when I started with this one, it was at least a couple hundred dollars, and cheaper to rent. Plus, Comcast guaranteed it would work. So I called Comcast to find out what modems were compatible, bought one for $80 and had someone there activate it for me and remove the rental charge. My wife returned the modem for me and got a receipt.

And then the charge appeared the next month and the one after. Comcast doesn't do email-based support, and their phone tree is terrible. I am disconnected after choosing options more times than not. Maybe 90% of the time I call. So I complain on Twitter, where they're responsive. Someone apologized, took the charges off, and credited me $20. Fine.

I just checked my bill in the process of looking at speed options. I'm tired of getting 3 Mbps upstream as I do now, as I have a lot of data to ship to the cloud. 3 Mbps is absurd in a developed country. Other lands have 20 Mbps or 100 Mbps symmetrical at rates lower than I pay for 16/3 Mbps, even when the overall cost of living is substantially higher.

And Comcast had charged me a rental again. I also found that I'm paying $60/month, but my account said for $62/month I should be getting 25/5.

I again went to Twitter, and someone there took care of the charge. I'll have to check again next month because Comcast. (Comcast's brand promise: Our bill is never right and there's no consequence of any kind for us being wrong.)

I have "business-class" Comcast, because I moved an office a few years ago, and Comcast has a 75% cancellation penalties on unused parts of a contract. This should probably be illegal, and if challenged, maybe it would be thrown out. But at the time, Comcast had a 300GB/month usage limited, and I'd exceeded it in testing backup services.

I was able to bring the business service home, and only pay about $10/month more. It was a good tradeoff for having no cap on usage. When I did the transition, I routinely saw 15 to 25 Mbps downstream and 5 to 15 up. Now they are much more careful at shaping traffic, even though their overall capacity can mostly allow much higher usage during non-peak hours.

The customer rep I was talking with on Twitter noted I could switch to residential service and get much higher speeds for the same money. I said, yes, but you're testing overage fees in some markets, and I don't have those now. The person agreed if I were concerned about that, I had the best service for now.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Missouri, where Google Fiber has one of its few operations, 1 Gbps up and down—symmetrical service—is $70 per month, no limits. Elsewhere in Seattle, where our telco is lightly building out gigabit service, it's $80 with a bundle and has no caps. In my neighborhood, they promise "up to" 40 Mbps downstream DSL for $30/month, but other neighbors report getting below 10 Mbps.

Comcast said before the FCC announced its regulatory change for Internet service earlier this year that such a change would affect its investment plans. Then a few weeks later (before its merger with Time-Warner Cable was called off days ago), Comcast said it will push 2 Gbps service to be available to 18 million households by the end of 2015 and 1 Gbps to almost all its service territory by the end of 2016.

I'll soon be paying less, getting more, or both. But all of this just demonstrates the necessity of competition, the broken nature of Internet service in America, and why other countries got it right before we did.

For now, I think I'll find a gigabit café to upload my photos.

My Revised Ebook on Setting up Apple's Wi-Fi Routers

For a decade (!!), I've been writing and revising a book on using Apple's Wi-Fi routers. Long ago it was Take Control of Your 802.11b AirPort Network, and the current, fifth edition has the moniker Take Control of Your Apple Wi-Fi Network. This latest update (a bit late and all my fault for that) brings the title up to date for 802.11ac, the newest and fastest flavor of Wi-Fi, as well as OS X Mavericks, iOS 7, and Windows 8.1.

The book's designed for any home or small-business user who finds that the basic information Apple provides isn't enough. While I fully agree configuration has never been better for Apple's AirPort Extreme, AirPort Express, and Time Capsule base stations, if you want to configure network layouts or network details outside of quite standard arrangements, you might feel at sea. This book is designed to help.

I go through how to set up basic networks and more advanced ones, including creates pods of Ethernet-connected or Wi-Fi–linked base stations (and mixed groups), as well as walking through all the networking settings and how to use them for specific tasks. I fully explain the ins and outs of AirPort Utility both for OS X and the similar, but more limited iOS version. And I tell you how you can make the Eye of Sauron appear on your Mac.

For instance, you can choose a static, unchanging local address for any computer or device on your network through DHCP Reservations. It's several steps with a few choices, and I take you through that. The book also explains frequency channels and the various Wi-Fi/802.11 standards, and how to site your equipment ideally and troubleshoot it when it doesn't work.

For more details on the book—which is available in DRM-free PDF, EPUB, and MOBI that you can use anywhere without restriction—and a downloadable excerpt, visit the Take Control page. At $20, it could save you an amount of frustration you can't stick a price tag on.


Irony in the DC

I just switched from running my own server hardware for various operations (including this blog, isbn.nu, wifinetnews.com, and Books & Writers) to a Virtual Private Server (VPS), in which I have two virtual machines under my control but don't have to deal with the underlying hardware. It's been over eight years since I moved my servers into a co-location data center, and I've mostly run servers of my own since 1994.The experience of moving was, well, moving. I had a great relationship with my co-lo, and enjoyed controlling every aspect of my fate and destiny. But with aging hardware and dropping costs for VPS hosting, it simply couldn't be financially justified any more. A recent experience with a meltdown on a Xserve with TidBITS (where I program and write) led me to believe virtual machine hosting was totally reasonable. I've been working for several weeks to set things up the way I wanted, and started moving Web servers a few weeks ago one at a time. I had a few glitches, but all my own. I'm very happy with the speed, performance, and flexibility. I finally moved isbn.nu, my heaviest data/CPU user, a week ago. A few tweaks were needed, but all was well. Then I wrote about the issue of VPS for an upcoming column (will add link) and tweeted about shutting off servers. That angered the data center gods, which struck the Fremont, Calif., DC at which my VPSes are located. The power surge apparently blew the mains and overwhelmed UPS backups. Power was quickly restored, and one of my servers was back online within a couple hours. The other? Some hard drives went bad and needed to be swapped, but total downtime was perhaps five hours (from a Saturday night to Sunday morning, hardly prime time). If the hard drive array was truly fubared, I had additional backups that the host could have restored. Clearly, I should have kept my mouth shut.


LeVar Burton isn't just an actor whose face has been prominent on our television for about 25 of the last 30-odd years, he's also a blogger, twitterer, tech head, and (via his online personae) a charming guy who loves his fans. He also just quit smoking, and deserves kudos for going public with it to get additional positive reinforcement.LeVar's one problem? He's not the No. 1 Google match for LeVar. Here's some link love from me.

Quest for Qwest

I decided to swap my household from Speakeasy Networks DSL service to Qwest. This is not a decision I took lightly. I've been a Speakeasy customer for about five years, and been generally happy with them. We hooked up a second line at home using Speakeasy VoIP service, which is configured so that no bits actually pass over the Internet, making for a high-quality line.

But, in the end, we were paying too much, partly due to the monopoly control situation that telcos have. Speakeasy was charging us $90 per month for 1.5 Mbps/384 Kbps plus unlimited voice (including tax). I'll get 3 Mbps/640 Kbps (and faster service as lines improve) for about $40 per month from Qwest. We never thought about killing our main Qwest line because we've had too many power outages: regular phone lines still work when there's no power (most of the time), and our alarm circuit is tied into the regular line. Qwest gives me $5 per month off DSL for having a landline bundle.

I was curious how the transition would work, because I figured we'd lose or current service at least temporarily. Fortunately, I'm testing cell routers right now, and had one I could bring home to use in typical circumstances. A cell router typically has Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections for the local network, and backhauls data over a cellular data network, often Sprint Nextel or Verizon's. The cell data connection in my house appears nearly as fast as my Speakeasy DSL was, partly because I had slow DSL and Sprint has upgraded its Seattle network to a faster flavor over the last few months.

So I had a stopgap in place this morning, since today was the likely switchover. At some point, the DSL from Speakeasy did stop working, and the new modem from Qwest arrived today.

It was a cinch to hook it up, and they included configuration software for Mac and Windows, despite stating in all their literature that they don't support Macs per se (they don't offer MSN software for Mac OS X, since it doesn't exist, and that's their services partner for email, etc.).

Of course, I'm always an edge case, and after easily getting a nice, fast connection going, the router stopped being responsive. Every time I went to check on it via its integral Web server, it rebooted. Gah. I called Qwest, and instantly got one of the most knowledgeable people I've ever spoken to in tech support anywhere. I didn't have to do any nonsense. We went through a factory reset, and he reset the DSL port on the Qwest side. At one point, we were talking about using UV to trigger an EEPROM rewrite.

The router seemed to be okay, so I got off the call. Within minutes, it was exhibiting the same problem again. Another call, this time a 15-minute wait, and another of the most technically sophisticated tech support guys or gals I've ever spoken to. With a few minutes' troubleshooting, he agreed it was a hardware fault, and is sending me a new modem.

Outnumbered, Lynn Takes to Blogging; Power Outages

Like a rock against which the ocean slams for eons, finally wearing it down to a nubbin, pebbles, and sand, so, too, has Lynn finally taken up blogging after years of me doing so. Lynn is a marvelous writer, which I say not just because I'm married to her (although her email to me in our early dating demonstrated her considerable store of wit, charm, and intelligence). With three Fleishmans in the house, if Lynn is ever going to get a word in edgewise, she  needs a forum.

In other news, power was fluctuating all over last night. At about 11.30 pm, when I had just managed to drop off, the power went out, silencing the "rain music" we use to help Rex sleep, turning off the A/C (which was mostly working as a fan), and turning off my CPAP. I got up and looked around through various windows, and it was our usual (infrequent) outage in which I can see lights at the top of the hill (Eastlake neighborhood's ridge/South Capitol Hill) and across the water (Wallingford).

We worried Rex would wake up either from my walking around, the lack of white noise, or the lack of light. I  was also concerned Ben would wake up and it would be pitchblack in his room with his night light out and neighbors' lights out. It was a full moon, though, and there was plenty of light leaking through the blinds.

Lynn suggested I pull out a battery system I got for camping and emergencies, that can deliver at least one night's electricity to my CPAP (with the humidifier turned off). Of course, I had stored it nearly behind the baby's crib. I did manage to get it out without making a massive amount of noise, hooked it up, and went back to sleep. At about 3 am, power came back on, fans and white noise powered back on, and we all went back to sleep again. The baby slept til 6.30, which is pretty unbelievable these days (5 to 5.30 am have been his usual range).

When I went to check email in the morning, I discovered that my database server had crashed overnight--it's a pretty fast machine by standards three years ago that just handle database operations for my various sites and partners (isbn.nu, db.tidbits.com, and wifinetnews.com, to name a few). It's hosted by digital forest, which has a very good track record on both their physical infrastructure and recovery from problems. I checked logs, and couldn't find any clue as to why it restarted twice in the wee hours. It managed to mostly recover, meaning my sites weren't down for long. Digital forest, when queried, said there was an anomaly with the rack on which the server lives, and they're investigating.

Here's the funny part: After the power outages and server downtime in San Francisco this last week, I was bragging to all and sundry that I had over 550 days of continuous uptime on this database server. Ah, well. Never tempt the gods of small particles and poetic justice.

Update: Digital forest discovered that another customer had used a power strip into which my database server was plugged. This is a big no-no. D.f., like all intelligent co-location facilities ("co-lo's," colloquially) has staff let customers into the co-lo and has cameras monitoring the facility, too. But that doesn't mean that someone can't do something stupid. This other customer's server had problems and was power cycling. Power cycling can draw a lot of peak power at startup, as fans run at maximum, drives all fire up, and the processor runs at full blast. This tripped a circuit breaker (twice, apparently), and brought my server down with it. The problem has been rectified, although I don't know what will happen to that other customer. (The correct procedure is to ask the on-site technical staff before plugging stuff in.)

Modern servers pull hundreds of watts of power each, if not more. This requires careful management to distribute power and avoid overheating and overloading. Digital forest just posted these photos of a new, still-in-stealth customer that is running 528 watt per square foot. A standard rack is 42U, where U is a unit equal to 1.75 inches. Looking at the photos, it's likely that the rack is pulling several kilowatts (d.f. says they can feed 50 kW per rack). Tricky stuff. They note that the customer's previous host made them divide their machines across four racks. Because we're charged by the rack (or half-rack), that's a rather expensive difference. Digital forest surcharges $20 per month per outlet, which is how they make up the electrical charge, however.

D.f. doesn't list their rack prices, but I'm guessing that they charge about $1,200 per rack, which would mean $4,800 for four racks. I'm not sure what this heavy power user's previous co-lo charged them per rack, but with the number of computers in the rack in the photo and the power surcharge, that would be more like $2,000 instead of $5,000.

That's all to say that you don't mess with plugging stuff in in a well-run co-lo. The co-lo does it or tells you where to.

Glenn Stabbed in Nude iPhone Review!

This is a fine day: I have a column in today's New York Post, the premium tabloid in this fine country of ours. Through a couple of colleagues they tracked me down because they wanted to run an iPhone piece by someone who had touched one. Apple has kept access to the iPhone more guarded than any other preannounced device--usually, companies either don't pre-announce and put everyone under nondisclosure who sees gear, or they pre-announce and offer fairly broad access at trade shows and elsewhere. Apple slipped the kimono in January, allowing a few dozen press people, including me, to hold and play with an early prototype. The prototype clearly had most of the basic functionality in place, because what I spent time with looks and works identically in the features I tested to what's shown in a long 20-minute video on Apple's site now.

It's a bit of an overstatement to call this a "first review," as the Post does, but it's a set of conclusions I've drawn from the physical experience with the device coupled with everything I've learned and seen since. It's a great device, but it's probably going to be overshadowed by its next model. Because AT&T hasn't released pricing for the data plan [update below], and whether Wi-Fi access at hotspots will be included, it's really unclear how much time people will spend with iPhones using the Internet over EDGE, which runs as fast as about 150 Kbps, but can run much slower; and that's downstream only, with upstream rates much slower.

Wi-Fi hotspot backhaul ranges from low broadband (768 Kbps/128 Kbps) to T-1 (1.5 Mbps/1.5 Mbps) and even higher. 3G services from AT&T can operate as fast as 3.6 Mbps with HSDPA, which they don't have rolled out everywhere, and that's a top possible speed; average speeds are below 1 Mbps downstream, and perhaps a few hundred Kbps upstream. That makes 3G and Wi-Fi at hotspots (versus Wi-Fi at homes that have high-speed cable service at 6 Mbps/1 Mbps, and so forth) relatively comparable.

It also means that EDGE will seem painfully slow as iPhone users roam on and off Wi-Fi hotspots. Apple says that the Wi-Fi/EDGE data roaming will be seamless, but that may just be frustrating, too: One minute, you're zooming along; the next, crawling.

Update: Apple and AT&T have released their voice and data plan prices, and Wi-Fi isn't mentioned. I have a long screed about this over at Wi-Fi Networking News. Individual plans with unlimited EDGE data start at $60 and existing AT&T subscribers like myself can add iPhone service (including unlimited data) for $20 per month per iPhone. The early reviews critique EDGE's speed and availability. If you're going to use the iPhone effectively, you're going to wind up paying perhaps Boingo $22 per month for Wi-Fi access all over the U.S.

And, man, are some people angry about this "review." Read David Pogue or Walt Mossberg or Ed Baig's take on the matter--they generally like the phone, but they are also critical of the EDGE network choice.