Midweek Tech Scan: Broadband for Seattle?

Mayor McGinn and the UW promote more broadband coverage; Microsoft holds its annual stockholders confab; and thePlatform explains what the heck it does.

Crosscut archive image.

Mayor Mike McGinn and ex-Mayor Charles Royer touting plans to bring fiber-optic Internet lines to Pioneer Square (May 2011).

Mayor McGinn and the UW promote more broadband coverage; Microsoft holds its annual stockholders confab; and thePlatform explains what the heck it does.

A step toward bringing broadband to all of Seattle took place earlier this week as Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and UW President Michael Young announced a partnership to solicit private proposals in order to make better use of the miles of optic fire cable available to communities surrounding the main UW campus.

When the mayor blessed a public-private effort to bring high-speed Internet broadband to Pioneer Square, it was noted that the city has roughly 500 miles of so-called “dark cable,” fiber optic lines already imbedded throughout the city but not in use. At that time, McGinn said that the city is in partnership with the county, state, the University of Washington and other public entities to bring broadband Internet coverage to all of Seattle.

While this week’s announcement focused on the U District, it was part of a broader initiative to invite Internet service providers to participate in Gig U, a national push to implement high speed optic fiber cable service as a means of promoting innovation and economic growth to neighborhoods and business districts near 37 universities across the nation.

For its part, the city will offer private companies the opportunity to lease the city’s  unused cable infrastructure and build broadband networks with speeds up to 100 times faster than current Internet speeds.

In a press release, the mayor said that the partnership with the UW would help Seattle compete in the global economy — a theme he has sounded in his advocacy for a cithywide broadband initiative.  “By offering to lease the dark fiber,” the mayor noted, “we can also negotiate with companies for better service to nearby neighborhoods who have poor quality service right now.”

The partnership will start by soliciting proposals, due Dec. 2,  from service providers and others interested in tapping the city’s unused high-speed fiber. Providers could lease the fiber from the city, an option that the city has never previously offered.  

Under the Gig.U guidelines, broadband zones could be established in the U District,  Eastlake, and Cascade neighborhoods, and could improve service to homes and businesses in South Lake Union.  The UW campus is already wired with high-speed Internet service, but integrating the unused dark fiber to neighboring communities would improve services currently limited by older technology such as copper phone lines and coaxial cables that were designed for TV and landline phone service but not for today’s broadband-hungry Internet uses.

With TV commercials everywhere, and proclamations from virtually every form of media (including these pages),  it’s no secret that Amazon’s new 7-inch $199 multimedia tablet, the Kindle Fire is being delivered this week. According to the company, the Kindle Fire devices started shipping a day earlier than previously announced, although no reason was given for the delivery speedup.  By the time you read this, you might already have an Amazon delivery on your door step.

Could it be that Amazon wants its device to be in consumers’ hands as early as possible before the other player in the small-form multimedia tablet, the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet, begins its own shipping on Thursday?  

Late news: CNET is reporting that Barnes & Noble has sped up its Nook Tablet delivery schedule. People who ordered the device online could receive it in the mail as early as today (Nov. 16).

This week saw a rare joint appearance of Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates at the annual Microsoft shareholders meeting in Redmond. The official company statement told a story of record financial performance: a 12 peecent growth to nearly $70 billion, with operating revenue growing 13 percent to over $27 billion. CEO Ballmer noted, “I see areas where we have a strong established business and huge opportunities for growth. And I see areas where we’ve made fundamental investments, and now have the opportunity to start building market position and share and grow revenue and profit.”

The company also overwhelmingly re-elected the Microsoft board of directors.

And yet, media reports of the event were far from sanguine.  According to a Reuters report, seen in the Huffington Post, shareholders were left grumbling about the restrictive 15-minute question period: a significant limitation for people who wanted to question Microsoft’s virtually frozen price per share, which reportedly has muddled in the $20 to $30 range for more than a decade. A shareholder suggestion that the company be broken up was dismissed by Ballmer. He also, once again, promoted Windows as the favored platform for the company’s push into tablets and other new computing forms, and again championed the Xbox gaming platform as the key to the company’s home entertainment plans.

Furthermore, according to Tech Flash, shareholders questioned why the company is holding onto $52.7 billion in cash and short-term investments, and not paying more to share holders. According to the report, Gates, now chairman of the board, responded, “You want to retain enough cash for the company to take big risks. I’ve always been interested in maintaining a strong balance sheet.”

Microsoft’s main source of revenue continues to be Windows and Office. Ballmer noted that 450 million licenses of Windows 7 have been sold, while 100 million copies of Office 2010 are in use. Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division, which includes Xbox and Windows Phone, grew revenues by 45 percent to more than $4 billion.

Seattle’s RealNetworks, the company that virtually started the Internet multimedia revolution with its release of the original Real Player in 1995,  announced this week a new, free-to-download version of the player. Updated capabilities include social networking features including viewing, keeping, and sharing Facebook videos.

The new player automatically collects Facebook videos posted by friends and catalogs them on a Facebook tab in the user’s RealPlayer computer video library.

And finally, one of the behind-the-scenes techie pleasures in playing with software is to discover an “easter egg”: a visual or audio surprise imbedded by developers that’s only known only to a few people. To the Seattle general public, thePlatform, based here in Seattle, might as well be an “easter egg” even though it’s a key resource for over a decade helping major TV-cable operations such as Comcast/Xfinity and PBS to deliver their video content to customers on line and using mobile devices.

How to explain what thePlatform does? “Basically you’re asking me to foreshadow my Thanksgiving conversation every year where I explain to my relatives what I do,” laughed Marty Roberts, vice president of sales and marketing, in a recent phone interview. His analogy: thePlatform is like FedEx.

“If you think about them,” he continued, “they have warehouses for storage, and planes and planes and trucks for delivery of their packages. They also have a logistics system that keeps track where to pick up a box or envelope that is ready to go, who needs to sign for it and how much to charge for it.”

ThePlatform performs essentially the same services for it clients, but the “packages” in this case are chunks of digital video — shows, commercials, or interstitial programming (the “stuff” between programs such as promos, etc.).  “Our job is to help big media companies and big pay-TV operators by picking up their video from wherever it’s stored and do all the things, all the right logistics to present that content to consumers on TV, iPads, Xboxes, and everything else mobile.”

ThePlatform performs essentially three services. First is to manage the flow of video from various sources) so it works with all the variety of portable/mobile devices that people use; secondly, managing the myriad business and licensing rules and policies involved on the ownership side of viceo; and finally making sure the video plays well on the various devices offered by each customer.

While thePlatform is now owned by Comcast (which purchased it in 2006), and is responsible for managing the company’s Xfinity “TV Everywhere” video platform, its clients also include PBS, NBC Now (local NBC TV owned and operated stations), Canada’s CBC, TruTV, Microsoft, E! Online, and other companies.

The company has a staff of 140, with offices on Second Avenue in downtown Seattle. Its biggest issue is not having enough business, but in getting engineers to come to Seattle and work. “The space we’re working in is super-fascinating,” Roberts added.  “TV is changing so rapidly: it’s an interesting space to be working in right now.”


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