Sponsored Data Caps — Does It Violate Net Neutrality?

One of the driving principles of Net Neutrality is the fact that all data is essentially created equal. ISPs are forbidden from segregating Internet traffic or creating “fast lanes” for companies looking to deliver streaming video or other rich media content into your home. This theoretically creates a level field where content creators — no matter their size — compete equally for the eyes of the consumer.

Net Neutrality and Data Caps

Recently, some Internet providers have been providing “sponsored data caps” which means the data consumed downloading or streaming the relevant content doesn’t count against a monthly data cap. This practice has drawn notice from the FCC, questioning whether it violates Net Neutrality. Let’s take a closer look at the details.

The FCC Looking at Sponsored Data Plans

The FCC recently became interested in the major ISPs use of sponsored data plans, also known as “zero-rating,” which exempts certain content from a user’s monthly data allowance. As noted in the linked article from December, Comcast, AT&T, and T-Mobile were requested to talk about the issue with the FCC by January 15th.

FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler commented on their request, “This is not an investigation. This is not any enforcement. This is to help us stay informed as to what the practices are, as we said we would do in the Open Internet Order.” The Commission simply wants to understand how the services operate while still providing for a “free and open” Internet.

The three mentioned companies exempt data in different ways. Comcast uses it for its own “Stream TV” in-home streaming service. T-Mobile’s Binge On service doesn’t count against a monthly data allowance, but the company reduces the quality of the video for users who don’t opt out of the exemption. AT&T charges advertisers a fee to deliver their content without it counting against someone’s mobile data cap.

What Should the Average Internet User Do?

Most Internet users needn’t worry about taking advantage of a sponsored data plan if it becomes available. If the video or music content in question is of interest to you, by all means enjoy it without any worries. The FCC is responsible for enforcing Net Neutrality regulations, and since this practice is a borderline violation, obviously they need to find out more.

Stay tuned for any further news about Net Neutrality in the coming year. In the meantime, check your Internet speed regularly to ensure your ISP is keeping up their end of the bargain!

Is Your ISP Gaming Your Internet Speed Test?

When you run an Internet speed test, you want to know the results reflect an accurate representation of your current streaming capability. Maybe you are trying to watch a 4K video or take part in a graphics-intensive MMORPG? If your ISP knew how to manipulate the test to make your service appear faster than reality, who can you trust?

ISP Gaming speed tests

It was recently discovered that an ISP was inflating speed test results by running the test on Internet port 8080, which is relatively free from traffic compared to ports 80 and 443 used for most Internet traffic. This causes the test results to be inflated by a factor as high as 200 percent. Unfortunately, you are generally unable to use port 8080 for typical Internet activity.

What Internet Speed Tests Should Reveal

Making sure your ISP is providing the service level you pay for remains a major reason for running an Internet speed test. If you subscribe to a 50 Mbps tier, a speed test should verify that fact. In this situation, running a test on port 8080 usually gives an accurate result.

On the other hand, if multiple users are accessing your home Internet simultaneously, this tends to eat up bandwidth, causing buffering when viewing HD video content. If your speed test still returns close the same result, it’s probably due to using port 8080 for the test. That port doesn’t take into account the extra activity all competing for its own slice of bandwidth.

It is important for your speed test to return meaningful results relevant to your current Internet usage patterns. This way you are able to make any changes to your home network to improve performance. Sure, an ISP needs to know they are meeting their end of the bandwidth bargain, but many speed tests don’t take into account the real world situation on your network.

A Useful Internet Speed Test

A truly useful speed test considers all the other activity fighting for bandwidth — either on your home network or when accessing a public WiFi network while on the go. Techniques like testing over port 8080 or using multiple threads during the test only serve to inflate the results and confuse users. While there is some value to know your Internet service reaches 50 Mbps speeds, it doesn’t matter as much if separate devices on your network barely reach 10 Mbps when used simultaneously.

In short, when choosing a speed test during heavy Internet activity, be sure to choose wisely.

Range Extenders Can Improve Your Home Network

Depending on the layout of your home and the location of your wireless router, you may encounter difficulty keeping a strong Internet signal throughout the residence. This problem becomes obvious when you are trying to stream video or other rich media content a significant distance from your router. Expect copious buffering and poor resolution in this scenario.

We’ve talked about mesh networks as a way to extend the range of your wireless router, but this technology is new and still pretty expensive. During a TODAY show story on improving home network performance, reporter Jeff Rossen mentioned using a range extender to allow him to watch Netflix in the bedroom which is on a different floor than his router.

Range Extenders improve network

Let’s check out this technology to see if it makes sense in your home.

A Closer Look at Range Extenders

Range extenders offer a relatively inexpensive way to spread your wireless signal throughout your home. Expect to pay anywhere from $75 to $150 for a decent model. They typically plug directly into a wall socket, so you are able to place the unit closer to where you do your most bandwidth-intensive Internet activity.

Many models support dual band routers, so you’ll be able extend the signal of both networks at your home if your extender allows it. If both your router and the range extender support WPS (WiFi Protected Setup) technology — most do — a simple button push on both devices transfers the network password information to the extender.

Look for your network name on your streaming device, usually appended with an “EXT,” log on with your password, and commence viewing.

Additionally, be sure to perform a quick speed test to verify the Internet speed through the extender is good enough for high quality video. In most cases, the improved wireless signal strength makes a noticeable difference in Internet performance.

A Boost for Digital Smart Homes

If you fully embraced the Internet of Things at your residence and encounter difficulty controlling the devices residing the farthest from your router, purchasing a range extender or two needs to be considered. They can definitely help optimize the performance of your digital smart home.

Most of the major companies producing routers, like Linksys and Netgear, also manufacture range extenders. Research the various models online or at a brick and mortar store to determine which model offers the best performance for the price. Make sure the unit supports WPS — especially if your router does as well — as it makes the setup an easier process.

If you live in a large house and don’t want to wait for the mesh network market to mature, a range extender may be your best option to improve your home network performance.

Google Fiber Looks to the North and Southeast

As other ISPs — most notably AT&T and their GigaPower offering — continue to expand fiber-optic one gigabit service across the country, Google Fiber approaches things at a more deliberate pace. At this time, Kansas City, Austin, and Provo are the only cities where Fiber subscriptions are actually available.

Recently, however, the technology giant announced that two cities in the upper half of the U.S. — Chicago and Portland — are being considered for the service. This is the first time Google has looked northwards for Fiber expansion. What other cities are slated for Google Fiber? Read further to see if your town could be next.

Google Fiber expansion map

The Southeast On Google Fiber’s Short Term Docket

Despite considering two Northern cities as future possibilities, the Southeast is Google Fiber’s expansion focus for the short term. It’s been about a year since Google announced Fiber was coming to the Nashville, Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, and Charlotte metro areas; covering many of the major cities of the Southeast. San Antonio is also slated to join Austin as Texas cities with the service, while Salt Lake City is being added to Provo in Utah.

A glance at Google’s Fiber expansion map reveals potential cities other than Chicago and Portland being looked at over the long term. These include Jacksonville and Tampa in Florida, Oklahoma City, Louisville, and a variety of locations in California, including San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Seattle is one of many cities applying to Google for Fiber consideration.

Considering Google Fiber installations take a lot of heavy lifting — both physical and political — if you live in one of those locales, don’t expect Fiber to be available for at least one to two years. Some cities, including Houston, New Orleans, Hampton Roads, and Atlantic City were actually eliminated from consideration — on a temporary basis — due to climate and other terrain issues.

What Is Google’s End Game for Fiber?

Many technology pundits wonder about Google’s ultimate reasoning for entering the ISP market with Fiber. Are they only hoping to shake up the scene, forcing existing players to change their pricing models, as with their wireless initiative, Project Fi? According to Time Magazine, Google’s motives appear to be ultimately altruistic, hoping to increase average Internet speeds across the U.S.

Considering the country’s relatively poor standing worldwide when it comes to overall Internet speed, Google’s efforts are to be lauded. According to the Akamai Internet speed rankings, the U.S. moved from 33rd in 2013 to 12th in 2014, showing an increase in average speed from 6.0 Mbps to 11.5 Mbps. It looks like the search giant is making a positive impact.

Whether or not Google Fiber is coming to your neighborhood in the near future, be sure to regularly check your Internet speed to ensure your ISP is providing you with the bandwidth you deserve.

Bandwidth Place on The Today Show

On Monday January 18th The Today Show spent time covering a topic of importance to Internet users everywhere — optimizing the speed of your home Internet connection. In fact, Bandwidth Place was mentioned by reporter Jeff Rossen as a tool of choice for determining your Internet speed before taking steps to improve performance. He offered some helpful tips sure to be worth noting for anyone trying to stream videos or play online games at home.

Bandwidth Place featured on the Today Show

Let’s take a closer look at what Jeff had to say.

Check Your Internet Speed

If you notice any issues with Internet performance, like buffering or poor screen resolution when streaming videos, Rossen suggests checking your Internet speed multiple times to get an average reading. Compare this value against what’s promised by your ISP on your bill or your online account, and raise an issue if you aren’t getting the speed you deserve.

Steps to Improve Home Internet Performance

In the interim, Rossen made a few suggestions to improve network performance in your home. First, move your router away from the modem. The cables used for connecting the modem and router give a small amount of interference, especially any power cables.

Rossen suggests placing the router on a bookshelf or even mounting it to a wall to improve signal strength. Investing in a high-end dual band router also offers significant advantages compared to the standard wireless model provided by most ISPs.

Additionally, make it a point to check your cables to ensure they aren’t twisted, as that can hamper connection strength. Finally, consider rebooting your router and modem if you are still encountering issues.

Range Extenders Can Help Boost Signal Strength

Rossen described a situation at his home where his router is on a different floor than his bedroom. This prevents him from streaming Netflix in bed. He suggested buying a range extender to boost the wireless signal from the router, improving the signal strength in any dead spots in a home or apartment.

Another newer technology worth considering is the mesh network router, which serves a similar function with enhanced performance and security.

As a last resort, Rossen suggests calling your ISP and signing up for a faster Internet tier. Consider bundling your Internet service with Digital Phone and TV if possible to garner additional savings.

As always, make sure to return to Bandwidth Place regularly to verify your Internet speed. Its HTML5 technology ensures you get accurate results without having to deal with obsolete Flash technology or app downloads.

All About AT&T GigaPower

As Google Fiber slowly increases its footprint across the United States, one of the country’s major Internet providers is upping their game with the rollout of an alternate “One Gig” Internet service. AT&T’s GigaPower continues to expand to new markets, possibly hoping to beat the competition to the punch. One of Google’s hopes for Fiber is to shake up the ISP market, and GigaPower’s aggressive expansion looks to be one result of their efforts.

One Gbps

Can you expect AT&T’s 1 Gbps service to become available in your region this year? Will its price bust your monthly budget? Let’s take a closer look at the answers.

AT&T GigaPower as Part of U-verse

AT&T delivers GigaPower as part of its U-verse Internet and Digital TV package. This offers the potential opportunity for cost savings if you decide to bundle multiple services under one AT&T account. The 100 percent fiber-optic network claims speeds of up to 1 Gbps, so if you subscribe, be sure to perform regular speed tests to ensure you are getting the bandwidth you deserve.

The typical GigaPower bundle provided by AT&T includes Digital Phone and TV, as well as a high-end DVR with 1 TB of storage. The price for GigaPower appears to depend on the market. Cupertino subscribers pay $110 per month for 1 Gbps, while users in Austin pay $70 per month. Google Fiber’s presence in the Austin market obviously affects the GigaPower price.

GigaPower Rollout Continues

If you live in a major metropolitan area, chances are decent GigaPower is available or AT&T is in the process of installing the necessary fiber for the service. In December, the company announced 38 new cities will be getting the service in 2016 bringing the total number of markets to 56 giving Google Fiber a real run for their money.

Check out AT&T’s GigaPower coverage map to see if your city is included. At a glance, it appears the Northeast and Northwest parts of the country are left out for the time being. In the former case, the difficulty and cost involved with fiber optic installation is likely hampering the rollout speed, as Verizon discovered with their FiOS product.

A perusal of online chatter about GigaPower reveals customers still having to wait a few months after the fiber is in the ground before they are able to subscribe to the service so patience is the key. But there’s still no denying the rapid rate of AT&T service rollout.

As more 4K video content becomes available for streaming, expect the need for 1 Gbps service to continue to grow. Multiple users streaming Ultra HD content and playing online games simultaneously on one home network makes it easy to consume bandwidth. Given this scenario, GigaPower’s arrival is awaited all over the land.

Could a Mesh Network Router Boost Your Home Wi-Fi?

If your household takes full advantage of its Internet service with simultaneous multiple users and hearty bandwidth consumption, you may notice some devices aren’t able to maintain a strong connection to your router. It’s possible your residence is too large with multiple walls adversely impacting the wireless signal strength.  And if you live in an Internet of Things-powered digital smart home, its imperative the myriad of devices connect to your home’s service.

mesh network router

Both scenarios have led to the development of mesh network routers — also known as Surround WiFi — a newer technology that enhances your home’s wireless network by using these smaller routers to broadcast the network signal throughout your residence. If this sound like something your home might need, read on for more details.

A Closer Look at Mesh Network Routers

A mesh network router usually comes in a dual band format, which allows you to segregate more bandwidth-intensive traffic onto the faster of the two network bands. The system ups the ante by working in concert with a series of routers (up to 10 per network) serving as access points for the network. Typically sold in packs of three, the mesh network allows you to essentially spread the wireless network signal across your entire residence.

This should serve nicely in a situation where your family’s home entertainment center is located in the opposite part of your house from your Internet modem. Simply place one mesh network router with the modem, and place another one in the room where you do a lot of video streaming. Be sure to run a quick speed test to ensure your bandwidth is sufficient for HD or 4K streaming.

Luma and eero are Early Players in the Market

Luma and eero are two companies earning praise for their mesh network products. Both are available at a price of $199 per unit, or you can purchase a pack of three for $499. Buying only one won’t give you the full advantage of multiple network access points.

The Luma is currently available for pre-order with an expected delivery date of early March. The eero units are expected at the end of January. Both devices feature an attractive design suitable for conspicuous placement throughout your home. Enterprise-level security and simple network management using a mobile app are promised by both manufacturers.

Their initial price is high, but you can expect the cost to fall once more companies enter the market. If you are an early adopter who depends on your Internet service for most aspects of your digital life, mesh-network routers offer the chance to truly optimize your home network usage. Expect this technology to truly take off in 2016.

Google Now Streaming Apps within Search Results

Google recently introduced some enhancements to its search engine aimed at making life easier for mobile users. This includes the indexing of app content, a process that actually began two years ago. Now you can receive information from both apps and web pages when performing a mobile search. They even raise the ante by streaming an app, allowing user interaction without having to head to the Google Play store to perform a download.

Google streaming apps

This new functionality does come with a price, as you need to be aware of your bandwidth usage. You don’t want streaming apps to put you over your monthly data cap. Let’s take a closer look at the details on Google streaming apps.

Seamless Search Results — Apps and Web Content

Google’s new mobile search functionality — introduced in late November — seamlessly mixes results driven from both app content as well as the traditional web pages. It automatically detects whether or not you’ve previously installed a mobile app and offers you the option to stream the app if desired by simply clicking on a link within the search results.

The latter feature is especially important if you have a limited amount of data left in your monthly allotment. Nobody wants apps to automatically stream on their mobile device, as it uses extra bandwidth while potentially bogging down the mobile web experience.

The app itself runs on Google’s cloud-based servers while you interact with the program in real-time. This minimizes the amount of data to be streamed and might even save some compared to a download. Usability could suffer depending on the speed of your Internet connection.

The indexed app content is also leveraged within Google Now, the personal assistant included with Android. This makes finding a cool restaurant or something fun to do when traveling a more rewarding experience. Here’s one side of the mobile competition where Apple’s Siri is at a disadvantage without its own popular search engine.

The Number of Streaming Apps is Limited at Launch

Google partnered with a limited number of app developers for the launch of the new streaming functionality. They include: Hotel Tonight, New York Subway, Weather, My Horoscope, Visual Anatomy Free, Chimani, Useful Knots, and Daily Horoscope. This looks to be a winning concept for the search engine giant, so expect more apps to go online with the service in the coming months.

4K Smart TV — Is There Enough Content?

One of the hottest items this holiday season is the 4K Smart TV. A large number of electronics retailers and department stores are offering deals on these televisions that sport a resolution significantly greater than standard 1080p HD. Considering the lack of 4K content provided by cable and satellite companies, the question must be asked:  is there enough Ultra HD content to warrant a 4K TV holiday purchase or is this simply another consumer electronics fad that won’t go anywhere like 3D TV?

Smart TV Gift

If you want to put a 4K TV on your wish list this year you need to consider other issues as well. One being, how much Internet bandwidth is required to stream Ultra HD and do you have the Internet speed to handle it? Let’s take a look at all of these questions and see if a 4K Smart TV makes sense.

Who Offers 4K Ultra HD Programming?

Some major content providers do offer a subset of programming in 4K, DirecTV being one example. The latest Genie DVR and an extra monthly fee are required, and of course, a television capable of 4K resolution. In addition, DirecTV customers get the benefit of satellite access to Ultra HD content without tying up the home’s Internet service.

Netflix provides a wider library of 4K content, but you really need at least 20 Mbps of Internet speed to be able to stream Ultra HD video without significant buffering and hiccups. Amazon, Comcast, and other content providers are also ramping up their 4K offerings. Video player manufacturers, like Roku, have taken note by releasing new devices capable of streaming 4K content.

It is reasonable to expect more Ultra HD content to become available over the next year. If you enjoy watching user-created videos, many of these are available in 4K resolution on YouTube and other services. Most 4K TVs also contain upscaling functionality making “normal” HD content look sharper on screen.

Don’t Forget About Blu-ray

Blu-ray players now include models offering 4K resolution (with upscaling) and the number of discs themselves now mastered in 4K continues to increase. Fortunately, these new discs are also playable in older players still connected to a standard HD TV. Their major advantage is superior resolution without the vagaries of streaming media.

Bandwidth Concerns

Streaming 4K content uses approximately four times as much data as regular HD. If you live in area with an ISP data cap, you’ll need to pay close attention to your usage when streaming Ultra HD. Comcast’s 300 GB monthly data cap allows for streaming around four hours of HD content each night, so you can expect to stream only sixty minutes in 4K resolution on a daily basis.

If 4K and Ultra HD reach critical mass among consumers one can only hope that data caps will become as obsolete as VHS players.

There is reason to consider purchasing a 4K TV this holiday season. Upscaling and the availability of 4K Blu-rays provide a means to take advantage of the enhanced resolution even while providers ramp up their Ultra HD content offerings. However, prices of these high-end TVs will continue to fall over the next year so it’s up to you whether or not it’s best to wait.

Android Wear and Skype — Video Chatting on your Smartwatch?

The wearable technology sector continues to grow at a steady pace, with companies adding new features and functionality hoping to convince consumers to make a smartwatch an essential part of their life. While Android Wear doesn’t enjoy the hipness factor of the Apple Watch, or the market share of its smartphone OS brother, the addition of Skype support to the platform hopes to change things. Will you soon be channeling your inner Dick Tracy while video chatting with friends from your wrist?

Smartwath call

Here’s a closer look at the details on Skype for Android Wear.

Not So Fast Dick Tracy

While Skype support for Android Wear enhances your smart watch, it doesn’t include the ability to video chat on your wrist. Since most Android Wear compatible watches are typically tethered to an Android phone — just like the Apple Watch and iPhone 6 — you actually perform a video chat session using your phone.

As video chatting is a bandwidth-intensive task, be sure to run a quick speed test to ensure your chat won’t be hampered by poor performance.

Android Wear’s new Skype support offers some useful functionality that nicely leverages a tethered smartwatch. Most notably you are able to read and reply to Skype messages using a watch’s voice-to-text feature. This is probably the closest thing to a true Dick Tracy experience offered by the platform.

The ability to hand draw your own emoji responses is another interesting, if not useful, feature. Finally, you are able to take Skype calls on your watch; it transfers the call to your smartphone for a video chat session. Apple Watch owners needn’t feel left out as these same features are already available on the Skype for the Apple Watch app.

The Future of Smartwatches Needs to be Untethered

The fact the current line of smartwatches typically need to be tethered to a smartphone is arguably one of things hampering greater adoption of the technology. For users who don’t need a 5-inch or greater smartphone screen and just want a device for text messaging, phone calls, and video chat, a true untethered smartwatch definitely fits the bill.

It remains to be seen how soon before Apple, Google, or another tech firm is willing to make the investment in further developing the smartwatch concept. When that happens, expect users everywhere to be using up their monthly data allowance talking into their 21st Century wristwatches.