NetAction Notes

Published by NetAction Issue No. 84 May 24, 2002
Repost where appropriate. See copyright information at end of message.

IN THIS ISSUE:

When Newer Isn't Better
Congress Says "No" to Email
The Future of the Regional Bells
Two Takes on Bridging the Digital Divide
About NetAction Notes


When Newer Isn't Better


Technology is constantly changing: processors get faster, hard drives hold more data, new versions of software are marketed. Keeping your information technology current isn't a problem if you've got a generous IT budget. But if you're a grassroots activist or work for a nonprofit organization, it's more likely that you're working with older hardware and software that is at least a generation or two behind the version on the market now.


That might not be such a bad thing when it comes to software. In fact, installing new versions of software can be a risky proposition, especially if the software has just been introduced.


One nonprofit organization that I work with learned this lesson the hard way when they installed a brand new version of a popular database program. Instead of the quick improvement in their database capabilities that they had expected, they've been plagued with problems that have even stumped the people providing tech support for the software. The problems will be solved eventually, but the nonprofit's staff is already several months behind in a planned cleanup of their database that is crucial to their advocacy programs and fundraising efforts.


Unfortunately, such "bugs" are not uncommon in new software programs. "Bugs" are problems with the software code that cause the software to behave in a way that the developer didn't anticipate. In the worst cases, "bugs" can crash your operating system or allow malicious hackers to steal data from your computer or use your hard drive to attack another server. More often, they are simply glitches that causes the new software, or some other software you use, to function improperly.


It would be great if software manufacturers were required to fix all the "bugs" in their products before they put them on the market. Consumers certainly expect that of other products. Unfortunately, existing consumer protection laws don't require software manufacturers to ensure that their products are defect-free before they are sold.


Typically, a software manufacture will release a free "beta" version of new software before the final product is ready. Users who try the "beta" version of the software are asked to report the "bugs" they encounter to the manufacturer, but that doesn't necessarily mean the "bugs" will be fixed before the product is sold. That's why the "Read Me" files that you get with new software programs typically include a list of known problems. In most cases, the manufacturer simply reports the problems when the software is released on the market, and distributes a modified version of the software, or simply a "patch," sometime later when the code problem has been corrected. (Microsoft, for example, frequently releases "patches" to correct problems with its Internet Explorer web browser.)


These slightly modified versions of the software are the reason the numbering system for software doesn't simply go from version 1 to version 2. If very minor changes are made to the program code, the manufacturer is likely to label it as version 1.01. A slightly more significant change is likely to be labeled as version 1.1. Only major changes that significantly change the software's features get a whole new number, such as version 2, and typically that is followed by another series of minor changes that are released with labels such as version 2.01, 2.1, or 2.1.2.


If you're thinking about upgrading one of your essential software programs, such as your database or word processing software, it's a good idea to find out ahead of time how long the product has been on the market. If it's a brand new release, such as a version 3.0, you might want to wait a few months until more experienced users have identified some of the most annoying or problematic "bugs. " Consider delaying your purchase until the company puts version 3.1 on the market.


If you absolutely have to install the software when it's first released, or it's pre-installed on new hardware that you've purchased, review the "Read Me" file carefully to make sure there aren't any known problems that will interfere with your use of the new program or existing programs that you use regularly. Also, be sure to visit the manufacturer's web site periodically and download newer versions when they're available.


It's tempting to want to install a new version of the software you regularly use, especially if the updated version includes interesting new features. But chances are you'll avoid problems if you wait.



Congress Says "No" To Email


Email is a powerful outreach tool for Internet activism, but we've long maintained that it is not advisable to encourage the use of email to communicate with elected officials. A recent survey by the Internet consulting firm Mindshare confirms this, at least with regard to Congress.


Mindshare surveyed more than 230 individuals who work on Capitol Hill or for the Bush administration, or are considered opinion leaders in Washington, D.C. One of the key findings of the study was that by a margin of more than 5 to 1, Congressional offices prefer that constituents contact them via regular mail instead of email. Another key finding was that Congressional staff and other national opinion leaders look for position papers, tutorials and other reports on public affairs web sites to familiarize themselves with issues and the impact of specific issues on their constituents.


See http://www.mindshare.net/news//2002-05-17.13.phtml for a press release about the study and information on how to obtain a copy.



The Future of the Regional Bells


History seems to periodically repeat itself in the communications industry with cycles of mergers and divestments. The four Regional Bell telephone companies that currently dominate the local service market -- SBC, Verizon, BellSouth and Qwest -- emerged as an unintended consequence of The Telecommunications Act of 1996. Congress had passed the Act in hopes of increasing competition in local phone service and promoting the introduction of a wide range of new services.

Unfortunately for consumers and competitors alike, local phone competition has never emerged, monopoly abuses by the Bells have continued and few new services have made it to the marketplace. But the Internet may eventually bring sweeping changes to the telecommunications industry; changes that may well be the beginning of the end for the Bells.

The telecommunications network is just one part of the interconnected networks that together comprise the Internet. Cable, fiber optic, Ethernet, radio waves, wireless modems and satellites are all part of what some refer to as the "stupid" network that serves as a transport mechanism for a wide range of content. The tools used to communicate over the Internet -- email, Web browsing, instant messaging, streaming media, etc. -- were developed for use on this "stupid" network.

In contrast, the "intelligent" controls that optimize the telephone network for voice transmission are more often a hindrance than a help, since the tools used by an increasingly mobile population of Internet users are not always compatible with the voice network. Moreover, the tools of the Internet are cutting into the demand for voice lines and effecting the Bells' revenue. While the demand for connectivity to the Internet is increasing, demand for traditional phone service is declining.

In "The Future of the Regional Bells," NetAction Advisory Board member Judi Clark explains why the Internet represents the first really significant threat to the powerful Bell monopolies. The second in NetAction's "Networks for the Future" project, "The Future of the Regional Bells" is at: http://www.netaction.org/futures/BellsFuture.htm.



Two Takes On Bridging the Digital Divide


Two bills that take dramatically different approaches to bridging the digital divide were introduced recently in the U.S. Senate. Both bills purport to promote the deployment of broadband Internet service in rural communities and poor urban neighborhoods. One might actually help expand Internet access to disadvantaged Americans; the other will simply preserve the Bell monopoly.


The Broadband Telecommunications Act of 2002, S. 2448 was introduced by Sen. Fritz Hollings, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee. The Hollings bill would use existing telephone excise taxes to finance grants and low interest government loans for deployment of broadband networks in areas where high-speed Internet service is not already available.


The types of projects that would be funded include loans to upgrade existing facilities to provide broadband access, and grants for studying the feasibility of deploying broadband in specific communities, for stimulating demand for broadband service, for pilot programs to test wireless and satellite broadband systems, and for research in broadband technology.


Hollings is an outspoken opponent of H.R. 1542, the Tauzin-Dingell bill that passed the House of Representatives earlier this year. The other bill that was recently introduced in the Senate, S. 2430 by Sen. John Breaux and Sen. Don Nickles, is indistinguishable from the Tauzin-Dingell bill. (See: http://www.netaction.org/notes/notes81.html for details on the Tauzin-Dingell bill.)


Like H.R. 1542, the Breaux-Nickles bill would eliminate the provision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that requires the Bell monopolies to give their competitors access to their facilities at reasonable prices. Without that access, many competitive Internet service providers would be unable to offer broadband access. This would reduce or eliminate competition, ensuring the extension of the Bell phone monopoly into broadband Internet access.


Moreover, the Breaux-Nickles bill would prevent states from regulating broadband services, facilities, and equipment. This would effectively prevent states from enforcing consumer safeguards designed to ensure fair rates, services, and billing practices.
The complete text of both bills is available on the Web at: http://thomas.loc.gov/.


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