The Twitter redesign - it's about the people

Yes, the Twitter redesign is different. No, there are parts of it I don't like either. But yes, it is better for Twitter.  Too much is being made of how it's changing too much and it's not the same way it was 5 years ago.  People say the same thing about Facebook, and last time I checked, they're doing pretty well.

Twitter is not the same service it was even 2 years ago.  Twitter has changed from what was essentially a combination of a text messaging replacement and a group messaging system to a communication platform.  It has evolved far beyond what anyone, myself included, thought it could.  The recent changes to Twitter make that more evident than ever.  Twitter has become more about connecting people and discovering information.  It should be no surprise that "connect" and "discover" are two words that feature prominently in the new Twitter design, but more on that later.

As simple of a concept as Twitter is, it actually hit a point where it did become very complicated to use, especially for newer users.  The first time you see "RT @wunderbar this #coke commercial is so #winning: bit.ly/1234" (note that is not a real link), how are you supposed to make sense of that?  RT, what does that even mean?  What is the email sign doing there? why are we putting pound signs in front of random words, and what is this bit.ly thing?  It may seem trivial to those of us who have been using Twitter for years, and in some cases literally invented some of those things.  (@replies, hashtags, and retweeting were all originally things users did to try to overcome shortcomings of the service that Twitter eventually embraced and built into the service.)  Twitter, in all of the simplicity, was becoming complicated.  The new design is there specifically to tty to make it simple and more accessible again.

Twitter's new design is focused on 4 things.  Home, connect, discover, and Me.  Home is pretty self explanatory, that is where your twitter feed is, and where you will spend most of your time.  Connect, or @connect as it is branded, combines things like suggested followers, replies, and retweets.  this is very akin to the "activity" feed that twitter launched a few months ago.  I didn't like the concept of the activity feed before, but after looking at it for a few days now, I can see the value.  It is a good tool to see everything that is happening related to you, including who has started following you.  the "Me" part is also very simple, that is your profile page. In an unfortunate UI choice that is also where Direct Messages are now found.  I *really* dislike that, and hope that they move DM's to somewhere more obvious soon.  Having them in the profile page is stupid at best.

Discover, or #discover, is the most interesting part of the redesign.  One of the most powerful features of Twitter has always been the ability to search twitter to find out what people are talking about, right now.  The power of being able to see what thousands or millions of people are saying at the same time about the same thing cannot be under-estimated.  Whether it be during the Egyptian revolution in the spring of 2011, current news events, sporting events, or elections, the ability to do this is something that we have simply never had before.  Twitter has been trying to harness this power for a long time.  Summize was the first way to search Twitter, and it was so good that Twitter bought it way back in 2008.  From there, Twitter introduced Trending Topics, which aimed to show what the most talked about things were on Twitter as they were happening.  #Discover is the evolution of that.  Discover takes trending topics and evolves them.  No longer about providing just the topic itself, but to provide some context.  Beside the trending topics will be news stories about them, integrated into the page.  It is an interesting new use, and one that I do think will put the idea of the hashtag, trending topics, and search into the forefront of how people use Twitter, as it is much more streamlined.

Twitter also overhauled their apps.  Twitter for iPhone, Twitter for Android, and Tweetdeck all received significant updates.  Twitter for iPhone and Android have nearly identical UI, and integrate the new features.  Now, I've never been a big Twitter for Android user, but I have been forcing myself to use it for the last few days.  I can say that I don't hate it, but that I wish it performed faster.  It is faster than it was before, but I think I still prefer Tweetdeck for Android.  I'm going to keep using Twitter for a while, but I see myself going back to Tweetdeck shortly.

Tweetdeck is another matter.  Tweetdeck has always been known as the power users' Twitter.  It was powerful and could do more than 95% of users would ever need, and had more customization options than I even knew what to do with.  Tweetdeck, like Twitter, was overly complicated, and too complicated for most users to even understand.  Twitter bought Tweetdeck recently, and released Tweetdeck 1.0.  This has been very controversial, because Tweetdeck has taken some of that power away.  Gone are some of the customization options.  Gone is some of the features such as Foursquare account support, and most of the Facebook support has been cut.  The UI, while similar, has been completely overhauled.  Things are now displayed inline instead of in another column or as a focus stealing picture frame, which is consistent with the rest of the Twitter UI.  Searching is now easier, and the information is displayed in a way that is easier to see.

That doesn't mean that it is all good.  There are many changes to the UI which I frankly hate.  How columns are handled now is frankly terrible.  instead of a simple horizontal slider to move between columns, especially when you have a number of them, has been replaced with large buttons at either side of the end columns, switching between 2-3 at a time.  It is a very unfortunate UI choice which takes away many of the great advantages the column layout has.

some of the options taken away will be missed, and power users will complain that getting to others takes an extra mouse click or two compared to previous versions.  Some will dislike that the colour scheme cannot be customized, and some will dislike how it has been "dumbed down" somewhat.  Personally, i'm going to miss some of it too, but the changes to Tweetdeck and Twitter are much more positive than they are negative.

When thinking about the changes to Twitter, I've tried to look at it through someone else's eyes.  One thing that is easy to forget, especially for power users, is that Twitter is not being made just for us anymore.  It is being made so anyone can jump into it and not feel overwhelmed.  Twitter is a platform, and a platform has to appeal to everyone.  That means making it more accessible, which is what it is now.  While it has lost some of the "power" that it had before, I would argue that Twitter now has even more power, because there will be even more people using it, and the real power of Twitter is in the people.  If 100 million new people join Twitter after this re-design, which is possible, and even likely, that means that there are 100 million more people to search.  I said at the beginning that the real power of twitter is in the ability to find out what people are talking about right now.  The more people there are talking about things, the better a metric it is.  That is what Twitter wants.

Now, let's not kid ourselves.  Twitter is a business, and the real reason for this redesign is advertising.  Twitter has been experimenting with promoted items for a long time and this only makes it easier.  Brands and companies are easier to promote now, the #Discover page really begs for advertisers to attach their news stories to trending topics, and the @connect page will make it even easier for Twitter to suggest new people and brands for a person to follow.  This is a brilliant move by Twitter simply because it will make advertising on the service much more valuable without compromising much of the user experience.

I don't mind the dumbing down of the Twitter service, I don't even mind the prospect of more advertising, as long as the result brings me a better service than it was before.  While the changes last week have been very jarring, and change the service more than some people like, overall Twitter is a better service today than it was two weeks ago.  The power of Twitter is in the people, and that is evident now more than ever.

The Rapidly Changing Internet - Online Advertising

The internet.  Probably the greatest invention of the information age.  It is revolutionizing how we do everything.  From communication, to shopping, to consuming information, to advertising, to working, and much more.  Unfortunately the internet is advancing and changing so much that it can be hard to adapt to.  Unfortunately this is leading to some pretty severe growing pains as Governments and agencies, as well as businesses and individuals are all trying to adapt, with varying degrees of success.  The biggest problem is the fear that comes with new technologies.  Those who do not understand or know how new tools and technologies work are more likely to be wary of them, and those people can hold us back.  There are many parts of this that I'm going to touch on, but I want to start with online advertising and how more specifically targeted ads can be the most valuable advertising that there is, and why we should embrace that, not be afraid of it.

I've chosen to talk about advertising first not because it is the obvious first choice, but because it is topical.  Canada's privacy commissioner recently ruled that some types of targeted advertising on the internet violate Canada's privacy laws, and needs to change.  This to me show just how out of touch our privacy commissioner and privacy laws are with the future of communication and media.

Let me start by talking about old media, or traditional, advertising.  I'll mostly be talking about TV advertising, but this still generally applies to other mediums like news print and radio as well.

Traditional advertising has a very simple model.  Companies sell a block of advertising, and all viewers watching at that time will see it.  That may sound like a great method, but it is actually pretty inefficient.  Advertising usually targets only a subset of those people that are watching.  For example, an advertisement for Gillette razors may be very relevant to someone like me, a mid 20's male.  But a 12 year old girl could be watching at the same time, and that commercial has zero value to her.  That means that out of the two of us, the advertisement is only reaching 50% of the audience with the targeted effect.

Now, ratings and demographics play a huge role in traditional advertising.  Higher rated TV shows will have more expensive ad spots because there are more people watching them.  A show like desperate housewives will have more advertisements targeted towards women, because more women than men watch that show.  During Saturday morning cartoons I'm more likely to see ads for toys than I am for R-rated movies.  Traditional media depends heavily on ratings and demographic information, because it can try to target the most appropriate ads at the shows that would have the appropriate audience.  That's why the male 18-34 and female 18-34 are such sought after viewers among networks.  But even with all of the data that they can get, there is still a large part of the audience that will watch an advertisement where it is simply not relevant to them.

Now, lets look at some of the various online advertising models.  Google, which makes the vast majority of their money each year through advertising, has the simplest, but easiest to understand model.  a company can buy a keyword on Google.  When a user does a search that includes that word, that company's advertisement appears in the search results.  So if I search for "coke" and the coca-cola company has purchased that keyword, I'll see an ad for coca-cola in my search results.  simple, but yet very effective.  It means that only people who are searching for something will see that ad.  If I don't' search for coke, I'll never see a coca-cola ad.  Simple as that.  Google uses keyword advertisements in almost all of its products.  in Gmail, if an email has a phrase relating to coke, a coke ad will appear on the right hand side of the page.  Simple, effective, and un-obtrusive.

Now, our activities can also influence advertisements we receive.  I'm going to use Facebook as the example here, as it is again, the most relevant.  All of the information a person puts into Facebook, whether it is their relationship status, hometown, interests, favourite movies, etc, allow advertisements to be targeted at them.  All of those "like" buttons you see all over the internet now, Facebook collects data on those too.  The goal is to provide you with the most targeted and relevant advertisements possible.  Did you just change your relationship status to engaged?  Well then Facebook will start giving you ads about wedding services.  IF you just got engaged and are female, then you are likely to get an ad for wedding dresses.  If you seem to "like" a lot of news stories relating to the Ford Motor Company, you will see a Ford ad. Like the Edmonton Oilers, you might see an ad for Oilers merchandise.

These types of ads are hugely valuable to companies, because it allows them to provide ads *only* to people that they would be relevant to.  If you are not getting married, there will be no ads for wedding services.  If you don't like coke, no coke ads.  It allow each ad to be so specifically targeted that it does not have to appeal to anyone except the target demographic.  This makes each advertisement more valuable for the both the company selling the ads, as well as the one buying them.

Now, as a consumer, someone looking at ads, I know that I would much rather see an ad that is for something that would actually matter to me.  Don't' get me wrong, if I never saw another advertisement again it would be great.  But since advertising is part of our lives, I really want to see something that matters.  I'd much rather see an ad for razor blades than makeup, for example.  And why would a company want to direct a makeup advertisement towards me?  It makes no sense for them, just as it makes no sense for me.

Now, there is an argument to be made about privacy.  That's a topic I'm going to talk about more later, but my belief is that how these ads are targeted towards me are in ways that are a natural extension of what has been done in the past.  Do you honestly thing that if 20 years ago that if companies could have targeted their advertising in this specific manner they wouldn't have?  the only reason they didn't was because there was no way of knowing.  Now, I'm sure this is true for most people, but I'm not one to hide many of my likes and interests.  It is by no means a secret that I like Coke more than Pepsi.  I will tell people that without a problem, so why should I care if an advertising company knows that.  Sure, that information should be used appropriately, but this is true for any and all information.  All the data is used for is to give me a better experience, which is what I want.

What the privacy commissioner has said is that information about how targeted ads work should be clear and visible to users.  I have no problem with that, as it is something that should be disclosed.  After that, it gets, well, stupid.  The privacy commissioner wants websites to stop using tools that users are "unaware of."  Honestly, that is shortsighted.  There is an argument to be made that if a person "likes" soothing on Facebook that it does actually constitute something that a user actively interacts with, and Facebook has disclosed this.  Things like changing a relationship status in Facebook are less obvious, but I would still argue that Facebook does disclose this as well, and a user has to actively put this information into Facebook.  IF they do not want that, they don't' have to.  When thinking about Google, the privacy commissioner's argument is even more wrong, because it only displays ads directly related to something a user does.

Online tracking of Children is another thing that the privacy commissioner wants stopped. Now, while I can see the argument that a child can't be reasonably expected to understand how all of this works, but what is being asked for is nearly impossible.  Using google as an example, if a 12 year old uses Goole to help with school homework, Google has no way at all of knowing who is making the search, just what the search is for.  The search could be made by a 12 year old, or a 70 year old, and Google would not know the difference.  For other services there are methods to combat at least part of this.  For almost all online services users must be 13 years of age to sign up, and have parents permission.  Now, admittedly this is probably one of the most broken "rules" in existence, but at least it is there.  In an age where companies have very little control over who actually uses their service, it would be impossible to keep one demographic out.

I really do believe that the type of targeted advertising we see on the internet today is the best kind of advertising ever seen.  It may seem a little off putting at first to think about an advertisement directed solely at an individual instead of a group of people, but this allows for a much better experience.  Just because it is new, does not make it bad for us.  I would argue that Google and Facebook have revolutionized advertising in ways that the TV networks could have only dreamed of 20 years ago.  Just as technology enables us as users to do more today than ever before, it allows the same thing to companies.  They should not be punished for using the tools at their disposal to create the best possible experience for a user simply because our laws are outdated and cannot keep up with said technologies.  That type of fear will only hold us back, not move us forward.  It doesn't mean that there is no privacy; There are things I choose not to share on the internet.  But if I'm willing share it, I want it to be used to give me a better experience.  That is why it is there. The future of advertising is here now.  In fact, it has been here for a few years.  The companies that embrace it, like Google, are doing immensely well.  Last time I checked Google was making more money than I can really comprehend through advertising sales.  This is not going away, and those that fight it and try to stop it like the Privacy Commissioner's office has will be exposed as outdated as they are, and will be left behind.

[Read] - Privacy Commissioner sets new guidelines for online ads

Playing politics on social media

Politics and religion.  If you ask your parents or grandparents the two things that should never be talked about among family, that that is it.  They will say that no good can some from talking about politics or religion in large groups, because often times someone will have a strong opinion that most others will not like, and that it can divide and break families because there are such strong feelings on the subject.  And apparently, they were right.

 

The 2008 presidential election was widely regarded as the coming out party for social media use in politics.  President Obama successfully used Facebook and Twitter to help him get the youth vote.  Now how much that actually helped can be debated, since many people would argue that he was going to win that election anyway, but the sheer effectiveness of the use of social media cannot be denied.  Obama and his staff clearly understood how important those types of tools are to reach the younger generations, the ones that are more and more becoming the voting bracket that will decided elections.  Their depth of understanding is evident based on the frustration that Obama's administration has had with the restrictive tech policies of the US government.  Obama basically had to beg and plead to be able to have a BlackBerry after he became President, and even after he won, his BlackBerry is heavily encrypted and can only communicate with a handful of other phones/devices.

There were even glimpses of use of social media during the 2008 federal election in Canada, which was a few weeks prior to the American one.  It wasn't nearly as prevalent, but the people that were on social media used it to talk, debate, and learn about the issues. Those politicians who used them had a much more engaged community of voters.

The community of people on social media, Twitter especially, was much different in 2008.  During the 2008 Canadian and Federal Elections I was able to have active, constructive debates and discussions with people from all over the country, continent, and sometimes even planet about things that were happening in those campaigns.  It felt good to be able to engage with a group of people who didn't simply engage in partisan politics.  Regardless of who people supported, we could talk, and not berate each other.  I will never forget the night of the US election in 2008.  I was alone in a hotel room in Moncton, New Brunswick, and I was able to watch on TV, as well as engage on Twitter as results came in.  I felt much more connected to what was happening that I would have been had I simply been alone in a hotel room with no real communications tool.  that day really changed my thoughts and opinions on Twitter, and was the first time that I felt that it was really something that could change how people communicate, and I think I was right.

Now, let's fast foward to late 2010 and 2011.  The use of Facebook and Twitter has exploded.  There are 750 million Facebook accounts and 250 Million Twitter accounts.  Almost every politician, or at least their campaign/staff office, has a twitter account.  The level of engagement it much higher, especially with the youth vote, than it was 15 years ago.  Not everyone uses social media effectively, but I think it is obvious that it can't be ignored anymore, and at least one person working for most politicians seems to agree.

Now, the community that participates in social media today is, as mentioned quite different than 2008.  The main reason for this is simply tonnage.  There are more people on social media now than there were 3 years ago, and because of that there are more voices, and that is not always a good thing.  I subscribe to two different theories that apply to social media today.  One is that a person alone can be smart, but people are significantly less smart.  That is the mob mentality.  The other is John Gabriel's Greater Internet Theory.  I'll let you look that up specifically, but the SFW version of it is that giving someone anonymity and a large audience usually ends badly.

Because of the sheer volume of people who now actively use Facebook, Twitter, etc. I find that it is much harder to be able to talk about anything political, or really, any controversial topic there anymore; especially Twitter.  On election day in Canada in 2010, I took to Twitter, like countless others did, to be part of the conversation.  But I found that nearly everything I said was met with responses from people that bordered on hostile.  Even when I was simply tweeting the current results of the election and how many seats each party was leading in, I had responses that ranged from "THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER" to "WHAT ARE PEOPLE DOING I'M MOVING TO MEXICO." A simple tweet of "Conservatives only 15 seats from a majority" was met with the most hostile response, claiming that people like me were ruining the country, and that I should have been ashamed of myself for voting for Stephen Harper's Conservatives.  The worst one told me that by voting conservative I had given my support to taking away a woman's right to choose to have an abortion.  I was simply stunned, mainly because I have never once told anyone who I have voted for in any election I have voted in since I was 18.  People assumed that I had voted Conservative simply because I said that they were only 15 seats away from a majority.  I would have said the same thing had the NDP or Liberal been in that position.  I guess I would have been accused of voting for them in that case.  Partisan Politics have invaded social media in a big way, and in a way that is detrimental to the overall experience of using that social media.

Let's now come to today.  In Edmonton there is a big debate happening about a new downtown arena.  I'm not going to turn this into a debate about whether or not public funds should go into the arena, but every time I have given my opinion on Twitter on what I think, I'm always met with a few responses that simply tell me that I'm wrong, and that I don't know what I'm talking about.  Now honestly, that's fine, tell me you disagree with me, but then tell me why, or give me your idea.  People who know me know that I love having a good, constructive debate with anyone, but as social media has exploded in popularity, that is becoming harder and harder.

It comes back to the mob mentality.  The larger the group or audience, the more likely we are to have bad apples in that group.  For me, this has changed how I use social media.  It won't stop me from talking about things sometimes, and I still use it to follow current events of course, but how I actually engage is changing.  I don't actively engage in debate over politics anymore, and when I do, it is very limited.  I'm not going to stop entirely, but I'm learning to pick my spots a lot more, and for those that do reply with useless responses, well the block button is a wonderful thing.

Social Media is a revolution, in both a good way and a bad way.  I've talked many times about how I love social media and have found many good uses for it, as well as how it has changed how I interact with people.  Social Media has literally saved lives, and let people connect in ways that simply did not exist 5 years ago, and that is a wonderful thing.  But as it has opened to more and more people, the regular conventions of conversation now apply, more than ever.

Politics and religion people, politics and religion.

Shaw puzzles by increasing speed on extreme

On April 20th, Shaw increased the bandwidth speed on their high speed extreme from 15Mbps to 25Mbps.  They have done this after a lengthy customer consultation spanning the month of February over the concept of Usage Based Billing. I’ve been thinking about this off and on since I heard about the increase, and even though I’m all for an upgrade in service to users; I quite frankly have no idea what to think, or what to say.  This does not make sense at all.  I don’t’ know where to begin, so hopefully I’ll get this off without too much ramble.

During the customer consultation session I attended, and reading from the notes of other consultations, Shaw’s message seemed clear.  Shaw wanted to put usage based billing into place because the company claimed that during peak hours there was too much congestion on the network, and the hope was that usage based billing would serve to lower the usage of heavy users, as well as help offset the costs of doing node splits, which increase the capacity and reduce the congestion on the network.

I, along with many other people, have explained almost to nauseam that this Usage Based Billing does not solve Shaw’s real problem.  You can find more info here, but to put it simply, amount of data and rate of speed are two completely different things.  And charging for the amount of data does not fix the problems related to rate of speed.  Shaw’s capacity is related to the rate of speed they can provide to its users, not how much data goes through.  The cost of 1 gigabyte of data is roughly the same, no matter how fast a user gets it.  The real cost, and where the capacity issues are, is in how quickly Shaw can provide the user with that gigabyte of data.

This is why I quite frankly don’t understand this move by Shaw.  If there is that much congestion on the network, why would they do something that would only increase the congestion?  During the consultation session we were told that most new customers choose the Shaw high speed extreme package, and that that package makes up a good portion of users at this time.  If there is this much congestion, why would Shaw take a move that would only make it worse?

Now, I do have a couple of theories on this. I will only share the one that I feel is most likely, for reasons that I will share at the end of this article.

What I think is most likely is that Shaw is trying to match Telus’ offerings in the Internet space, at least on paper. Telus Optik High Speed Turbo Internet, which is currently the company’s fastest offering, tops out at the same 25 Mbps. This puts each offering from the company at roughly the same price, within $1-2/month. Perhaps Shaw simply saw that Telus offered a similar product at a better price, and needed to move to match it.

If this is the case, this is likely a worst case scenario for Shaw.  If they are truly facing the congestion issues they say they are, increasing the congestion to match the competition is likely something they did not want to do.  Shaw is already struggling to meet advertised speeds during peak hours in dense urban areas, and increasing the cap will only make that worse.  My fear is that this will drive Shaw to re-introduce a Usage Based Billing model to recover the costs of more node splits to try to handle the increased congestion.  Perhaps Shaw is increasing the speed for that purpose exactly.  If congestion becomes more evident, it becomes easier for Shaw to take measures it says will help decrease that congestion.

As I began writing this article, I mused that it was difficult to write when I really had little information.  A Shaw representative reached out to me, and provided the following statement:  “We are always looking for ways to improve the Shaw Internet experience for our customers.  The Shaw extreme upgrades are the first step, and we look forward to sharing more details late May/Early June.”  The representative did also say that more information will be coming next week.  Based on that, I think I am going to reserve any more speculation or judgment to what I have already said, and wait for more news to come.

I still truly have no idea what’s coming from Shaw.  I have guesses that I’m going to keep quiet, because I don’t want to wildly speculate. I can only assume that this is the first step after the consultation sessions, it just seems to myself, and many other observers I have talked to, to be exactly the opposite of what they were trying to accomplish.  It will be very interesting to see what happens next.

 

The Shaw Customer Discussion Sessions

On March 21st, I had the opportunity to attend one of the Shaw Internet Customer Consultation Sessions.  It was a good session, and I had so much to say that I actually had written 1500 words down in a blog post that I completely scrapped before starting this one.  That may seem excessive, but after re-reading it I realized all I was doing was a play-by-play of the session, which is not what I actually want to do.  What you’ll read here is are my thoughts on on the session as a whole. If I went into huge detail, this would be a lot bigger than anyone, myself included, wants. My overall feeling coming out of the meeting was simply that Shaw is trying to find a way to make more money off of a subscriber base that is not growing.  That in itself is not really shocking, but to actually hear it be presented that way is what is actually interesting.  Shaw shared more information that I expected them to in this meeting, and because of that I have a different perspective.  Shaw told us that in the past, the majority of new revenues came from the addition of customers, but that in the recent past the amount of new customers being added has dropped dramatically.  Basically it comes down to the fact that the markets they are in are full and built out and that there are not many new subscribers in them.  Shaw is looking for ways to grow its revenue stream with what is essentially a stagnated customer base.  In the past, they have done this by annual rate increases.  But the claim is that now those annual rate increases do not cover the increasing cost of running the network.  More on that a little later.

A good chunk of the talk focused on network congestion.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the majority of the network use is in the evening, and that was confirmed. Peak times are from roughly 5pm-midnight each day.  Shaw’s primary focus at this point is dealing with that congestion.  How they do that is something called a node split.  A node is pretty much exactly as it sounds; which is to say a central node for the internet connections.  Each node services 500-1000 homes, and the nodes then feed into a “community hub,” of which several exist in each city.  Those hubs then feed into a single datacenter in each city, which is connected to Shaw’s “backbone” network.  It was indicated to us that the majority of the congestion exists between the node and the homes.  It makes sense, because as people use more data, it means that the node can be pushed to the capacity of what it can handle.  Node splits are pretty simple.  Assuming 800 homes on a node, node splitting is when a new node is built, and that node takes about 400 homes, leaving each node at 400 homes.  This essentially doubles the capacity of the existing node, and adds new capacity with a new node.  It was indicated that Shaw currently does up to 500 node splits every single year, and that 300-400 are always being planned as they monitor more congestion.  However, with the rate of growth of internet usage, they have actually had to inject more money this fiscal year into doing more node splits.  My math based on the cost information they gave us, along with headroom and other costs, puts it probably in the 160 additional node area.  This means that Shaw is trying to do roughly 660 node splits this year instead of the normal 500.

Now, it may sound like they are doing a lot to try to combat congestion, and they are.  But after looking at some data, listening to points other attendees made at the meeting, this sounds good but they could be doing a lot more.  An attendee at the table I was at pointed out something that I hadn't noticed, which is that the amount of money Shaw is investing in capital expenditures(which are infrastructure projects like building new nodes, upgrading equipment, etc.), has not kept up with the growth in revenue in the past few years.  This means that Shaw is investing less for every dollar in revenue than they have in the past.  This injection of money to do the additional node splits and upgrades this year is a very good start, but I personally think that Shaw can, and should, put a lot more investment into capital so it can work better to meet that demand.  It is simply the cost of doing business.  Shaw did tell us that there are many factors why this stat is the way it is, and that there still must be a profit margin for the company, which is a valid point.  However, the internet market is the real growth market right now in terms of usage, more so than TV or Phone, and more money does need to go there.  An employee threw a very large number at us for how much money they have invested to build out their network in the last decade.  It is impressive, and it is why the Shaw network is as robust as it is now.  But if congestion is still an issue, than it is not enough.

There was talk regarding how to deal with the congestion.  Lots of talk.  Most of the discussion revolved around how to reduce congestion during the peak times of 5pm-midnight.  My view on this is simple: the only way to reduce the congestion is the build more infrastructure.  The plan to cap data usage will not fix the problem of the congestion.  the core of the problem is that it’s not the actual data that is the problem, but the rate of speed in which the data is being downloaded that is.  I go a lot more into that topic in this post. This is the main reason why I don’t like Usage Based Billing.  Any method of capping someone’s internet will not really change their usage.  All it will do is add yet another tax onto that usage.  there was a suggestion to make data rates higher during peak periods.  Again, that will not solve the problem because people are not going to be watching many Netflix movies at three o’clock in the morning.  There were other ideas worth merit, such as offering unlimited data to those customers subscribing to Shaw’s “Triple play.”  Triple play users are those users who have Shaw TV, internet, and Phone.  Other ideas included increasing the caps dramatically.  But I will re-iterate my personal opinion that any form of a cap on datawill only serve as a tax, and as one person pointed out, there will be people who will try to reach that cap every month to “get their money’s worth” where they otherwise might not.  If that occurs on any large scale, that would only add to the problem, not solve it.

As I said above, Shaw shared a lot of information that I didn't expect them to share.  There were not many questions that were not answered in that room.  That was a very encouraging sign in the entire process.  For the most part, I was very impressed with how the employees talked with us, and handled us.  They seemed honest, willing to listen, and genuinely accepted the points we made.  They were very honest about the fact that they throttle bittorrent uploads “intelligently” which they described as throttling when a node became congested because of bittorrent traffic. They admitted that they know where the growth is, and that they are going to struggle to meet that growth.  and one of the more interesting things to come out of it was that they did say that these meetings were being done to help them find a way to generate more revenue so they could do the necessary upgrades to keep their network running as well as possible.  That is where the UBB plans stemmed from.

The one aspect of the presentation which I really didn't like were the charts and graphs they had at the front of the room.  Actually, really didn't like is probably an understatement.  Shaw was very open with us on almost every respect, but those graphs truly looked like they and something to hide.  One graph showed data usage over the last 10 years, and showed a “60% increase since July 2010” but had absolutely ZERO scale to it.  There was no way of knowing if the increases were from 4GB to 10, 40 to 100, or 40000 to 1000000.  Without a proper scale of the actual increase, that graph was 100% useless.  I questioned someone on that, and I was told that the graph served only to “begin the talks, and give people a sense of scale.”  For me, it did the exact opposite.  While I have no reason to dispute that there has been that 60% increase, without an actual scale to use, that graph was immediately dismissed.  They had a similar chart that showed that 45% of all traffic was peer to peer, but didn't indicate exactly how much traffic that really is.  That chart is again immediately dismissed because it does not contain any actual data.  No matter how open Shaw was in the meeting, the charts attempting to show scale were completely ineffective in their intended purpose.

One other thing that I was really frustrated with was a phrase that I heard way too much during the meeting.  “If you were Shaw, what would you do?”  I completely understand the reason the reason why they ask that question.  It is meant to stir the discussion.  However we heard that question, or a variation of that question so many time it did seem at times that Shaw was trying to ask that instead of giving us an answer.  A couple attendees told me that they felt that became frustrating, and I agree.  Sometimes we wanted an answer, and were given another question.  I wanted to actually hear what Shaw wanted to do, not say what I think they should do.  Constantly asking us for our perspective when what we wanted was theirs added a level of difficulty to the meeting that didn’t need to be there.

I’m really torn on what I feel coming out of this meeting.  On one hand, I’m really happy that this happened, and it really did feel like Shaw was truly asking for customer input, and that that input did mean something.  They were more candid and forthcoming than I ever thought they would be, yet still felt like they were holding back just a bit.  They didn’t want to steer the discussion in any specific direction, other than trying to keep it specific to internet discussion.  But yet it did feel like the talk kept going to “we need to increase the amount of money we take in to make this work”  I’m not sure if it’s possible to feel encouraged and discouraged at the same time, but that’s kind of how I feel.  I’m happy that Shaw did these meetings, not many companies as large as Shaw would, but I’m still very apprehensive for the future.

This may come down to an economics question that I’m really not qualified to answer.  Shaw says that it is costing them more to maintain their network, and usual rate increases do not keep up.  This in theory should mean that Shaw will have to find either new ways to gain revenue, or do the work more efficiently.  The numbers do show that they do not put as much into capital projects as they have in the past, and that is at the very least where they should start.  But the simple fact that is that under the UBB system, there will be not one bill that goes down, and many that go up.  This is not a system that the general consumer wants.  I heard the phrase “cost of doing business” a lot from a number of attendees.  I agree with them.  Keeping the network running at the standard that Shaw has set frankly is the cost of doing business.  And while I think most people can stomach rate increases, going to UBB is not something they can really tolerate long term, since the usage patterns dictate that usage is only going up.  An employee told us that Shaw is a company that does not believe in contracts, which means that they have to win our business every single day.  Well if winning our business every single day is the cost of doing business, than Shaw needs to put the money into it to do that.  If Shaw has enough money to spend $2 Billion to buy a TV network and invest Billions of dollars into building a mobile network for cell phones, than it should have the money to maintain its internet network.  It’s as simple as that.

At the end of the day I really do believe that something will change.  I’m not sure when, but at some point in the future Shaw will change it’s structure of delivery and pricing on its internet service.  I have zero knowledge of what that may be, but my gut feeling is that we will see some kind of system where the bandwidth, or rate of speed, you get will be offered at a low cost, and the amount of data you get will be separate.  An example of this is that a user could get the regular high speed plan now, but get it with 250GB of data per month, or get high speed extreme with 100GB.  Separating those out does have advantages, but also carries more overhead and difficulty for users, and still does cap the plans.  I’m not a fan of this plan, but the more I think about it, the more I fear that this will be the eventual endgame.  My personal preference is that Shaw keep the status quo; not because I just want unlimited internet all the time, but because I believe that that is truly the best way for the internet to function.  As several attendees can confirm, my data usage is not nearly as high as some other people who attended.  But I do believe in un-metered internet.  I believe that Shaw can, and should, be able to invest the necessary money into network upgrades without such mechanisms as UBB.  Annual rate increases are fine with me, those are the cost of *my* doing business, but anything beyond that is simply another tax on the consumer.

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what I took out of that meeting.  I took six pages of notes and have read through them enough times that my head is starting to spin.  I ended up not writing at all what I thought I would write about, because if I did that this would be 10,000 words long.  Talking about every single thing that was said, every point made, would simply be too much, and would end up being just a huge ramble of a post.  That speaks volumes to the fact that this discussion as a whole is not over, and there is much more to come in the future.  I could talk for hours about Shaw, UBB, and the internet in general, because the internet is much more important than most people realize, though I think that that is slowly starting to change. Radically changing the structure of how we pay for the internet would be like trying to change the structure of how we pay for electricity or water, and this industry is less than 20 years old.  I’m very interested to see what Shaw will do at the end of all of this.  they have a difficult balancing act to walk.  Now we get to see if they’ll fall.