Random Thoughts – Randocity!

WiFi on Amtrak: Traveling Connected

Posted in streaming media, technologies, travel by commorancy on September 16, 2012

Recently, I took am Amtrak train to St. Louis (via Chicago) on the California Zephyr.  While the trip had some breathtaking views through the Rocky Mountains, remaining connected throughout that trip was very much a challenge.  Let’s explore.

Verizon MiFi

Verizon Jetpack MiFiAbout a week before I was to hop on the train, I thought it might be a good idea to buy a Verizon MiFi device for the trip.  After all, Amtrak says they have WiFi on the trains, but they also say that the connectivity speed is limited and streaming of any kind is restricted.  So, I decided to buy my own hotspot for the trip to stay connected without restrictions.  Verizon has a 4G LTE Jetpack, and that’s what I chose.  I bought the unit without a contract, so I paid full price for the unit with $50 a month service (4 GB cap).  Verizon, at that time, only offered 3 different MiFi devices.  A thicker square unit that has a blue LED-type display, two rectangular units, one with bright white text display (see image) and one with only a battery status display.  The square unit has less battery life and is quite a bit bigger.  The unit with only a status display is older and the unit I chose was I believe the newest of the three, the smallest and has the best battery life.  One other important reason I chose this device (pictured to the left), is that it will operate while charging (this is important if you  don’t want to wait an hour or two for it to charge).  The older rectangular Jetpack will not operate while charging.  I know this because we have one that gets passed around at work for on-call purposes and that limitation about that version sucked.  So, I specifically looked for a unit that could operate while charging.

Note: I would post pictures here of all three units, but these units will be outdated in 6 months and new units will be available.  So, you should check Verizon.com to see whatever is available today rather than trying to search for what I’ve purchased. 

Virgin MiFi

I also have an older Virgin 3G MiFi.  I had purchased this one from Best Buy about a year ago.  I originally purchased this because I didn’t want to invest in the data service on the iPad as it’s locked only to the iPad (cannot be tethered or become a hotspot without jailbreaking the unit).  So, I bought the Virgin MiFi back then to allow me to use it with my phone, iPad, iPod touch or notebook.  Much more flexible (and cheaper) than the AT&T or Verizon built-in 3G on the iPad.  So, I carried this one with me on the trip also.

Why two MiFi devices?

Well, I already had the Virgin mobile 3G MiFi, but since it uses Sprint’s 3G network I wasn’t sure how reliable the connectivity would be during the trip.  Because Verizon touts its ‘great coverage’, I bought into that spiel and purchased a Verizon unit as backup.  So, I thought that if one failed to have connectivity that the other one might.  The Verizon is also 4G and I thought I might get 4G speeds along some parts of the trip.  So, let’s explore how that worked out.

How did it work out?

Not too well.  The 4G on the Verizon MiFi was a complete waste.  When I did have connectivity on the Verizon MiFi, it was always 3G.  The only exception to this was major cities.  By major cities, I mean major cities (like Chicago) and 3G everywhere else (whenever there was connectivity.. we’ll come to this).  There was absolutely zero 4G connectivity anywhere along the California Zephyr route except in California when I started and in the outskirts of Chicago.  Everywhere else was 3G.

How much connectivity did I have?  In most of Nevada, there was absolutely nothing for long stretches.  No phone service, no 3G, nothing.  Just one big dead spot.  The Rocky Mountains were mostly dead also, but that’s expected due to the mountains. Once I had gotten through Nevada and the Rockies, though, there was spotty connectivity whenever the train would be close to a medium sized city.  Most of the service along the route was 1 or 2 bars when it was there.  That’s not to say I didn’t have service, though.  When there was service, it lasted for a while.  Long enough to get email, send responses, etc.  So, it was at least there enough to get some work done.

On the way back, I took a different train and route.  This trek went from Kansas City to LA.  This route has a whole lot more availability of service, but still no 4G.  So, while the connectivity was more available, it wasn’t any more stable as it was still 1-2 bars.  So, streaming was still not possible.

Note, though, I did swap between both devices for several reasons.  I always preferred using the Virgin MiFi whenever available as it has unlimited service with no data cap.  There’s a data cap on the Verizon service and I wanted to reserve usage of that to places where the Virgin device didn’t work (which was a lot more frequent than it should have been, but not unexpected).

So, the Verizon device did have connectivity somewhat more frequently than the Virgin (Sprint network) device.  Since both ran at 3G speeds, they both had similar speed of transfers at 1-2 bars, which is fast enough for email, text messaging and limited surfing, but not much more than that.

T-Mobile Phone Service

Note that my phone is T-Mobile and the service here didn’t fare any better than the MiFi devices.  However, whenever the Verizon device had service, so did T-Mobile.  So, I was pleasantly surprised by similar phone connectivity along the route to Verizon.  However, my phone has no data plan, so I couldn’t use this for any additional service.  So, this is the need for carrying the MiFi devices.

Streaming Media

Because the service was 1-2 bars most of the time and 3G, there is no way to reliably stream anything.  Even at the highest numbers of bars, 3G still has a hard time streaming YouTube or Netflix.  At 1 bar, there is just no way to stream.  I tried streaming Stillstream.com on the train and it just kept cutting in and out.  I would get about 2 minutes of stream and then it would cut off.  Just not a great way to listen to online radio.  So, streaming is definitely out.  Streaming radio should be quite a bit lighter than streaming video.  On the train, streaming video simply won’t work.  Expect to bring along offline media like downloaded movies or disks.

What about Amtrak WiFi?

Apparently, few trains have it.  I was in a sleeper and supposedly the sleeper cars were to have WiFi.  However, none of the trains had WiFi at all.   So, there was no way to use a train WiFi as backup as there was nothing.  I’m definitely glad I brought my own MiFi as otherwise I wouldn’t have had any connectivity.  Was getting the Verizon Jetpack worth it?  Not really considering the connectivity level of the Virgin device.  If I hadn’t had a device at all, then perhaps.  However, the 4G doesn’t work at all on the train, and 3G was not that great, either.  At least, not for streaming.  Although, I will say that the Verizon device did at least offer service more frequently than Virgin, but not more frequently that I’d run out and buy a Verizon device just to travel on Amtrak.  Since the Virgin device is cheaper (at least for the plan I have), then it was enough.  However, Virgin has changed up their plans again, so it may not be such a great deal for 3G connectivity.

Overall

I’m glad I had MiFi devices so I could at least check email, respond, text message and do limited surfing.  This was great for that purpose (when the service wasn’t completely dead).  However, expect to bring along books to read, movies to watch and other offline media.  Don’t expect to watch YouTube, Netflix or download stuff while traveling on Amtrak as it just won’t work for that.  Amtrak needs to improve this part of the travel experience as connectivity is important to a lot of people today.  Not having the Internet is really an oversight that needs to be corrected.

Additionally, carriers like Verizon need to plant more towers along Amtrak train routes to offer better connectivity (and 4G service) to Amtrak trains.  Amtrak and the carriers need to partner to offer service on the trains that is of higher quality all along the way instead of long stretches of dead spots.  On the flip side, though, if you’re on the train you may want to be cut off from the world without phone or internet service.  I can understand this as well, but for those who want to surf (especially at night when it’s extremely dark outside the train), you’ll have to find something else to do during dead spots.

Both Amtrak and the carriers need to improve this as traveling by train is actually relaxing and a fun way to see the country which you completely miss when flying. In fact, the California Zephyr offers scenery that you can see no other way than by train as there are no roads that lead through parts of the route they take. So, traveling by train is definitely a fun way to see the country.  Yes, much slower than by plane, but a whole lot more scenic.  Because of the length of travel it takes to get across country by train, having reliable Internet service is actually something Amtrak needs to address.  Amtrak just needs to bring itself up to today’s technology and get better connectivity on the trains.  This is not an impossible task, it just needs a bit of investment by both the carriers and by Amtrak.

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Dear TV Show producers, Let ‘V’ be a lesson to you

Posted in streaming media, TV Shows by commorancy on June 10, 2011

As was predicted in Randosity’s earlier Boycott V Series article, V has officially been cancelled by ABC as of May 13, 2011 (Friday the 13th).  This was not a good day for the V series cast and crew as they had just lost their jobs.  Oh well, such is life in show business.  However, this cancellation goes to prove yet another experiment a failure at the expense of what could have been a good series.

Since V’s second season launch in January, the producers and/or ABC had made the insane choice to not allow V back onto Hulu, iTunes, Amazon or any other streaming media service (including ABC’s very own streaming TV web site).  So, that meant no way to watch back episodes or catch up on missed V episodes.  This also meant as people began missing episodes, they couldn’t catch up and said,  “f-it” and moved on.

Lessons Learned

When your series targets the exact age demographic of people who do watch their TV series via Hulu (or any other streaming site) and also when you decide to cut these exact viewers off from your show, it’s the kiss of death.  V is, unfortunately, a perfect shining example of what not to do with streaming media and a TV series.  Don’t shun streaming media, embrace it.  Embrace it with open arms and nurture and foster its growth.  As a producer you want, no, you need viewers.  The more the better.  It doesn’t matter if you have to rip the video of each episode and personally seed the file yourself on bitorrent.  Do it!

What you don’t want is, well, exactly what the producers did to V.  Don’t bite the hand the feeds you.  Worse, the show began to feel the effects of its lower and lower viewership (and ratings) and began making more and more desperate, drastic and insane story choices to try and recoup viewership.  It didn’t work and the choices killed off main characters from the show, yet didn’t do anything to increase viewership.  This only made the show worse and more pointless.  But, these story choices were simply a side effect of the stupidity of not allowing streaming sites to stream (or back catalog) the series.  You can’t change the story to attempt make up for the ‘no streaming’ decision.  To get viewers back, the producers would have had to rescind that decision and allow the show back onto Hulu, iTunes and Amazon.  But, by April  it was already too late to rescind that decision and gain the lost viewership back.

Back Catalogs & Advertisers

Still, any show should allow a back catalog of episodes to be available on streaming sites for even just a few months to allow viewers to keep up with a show (even if the shows aren’t available to streaming for 30 days).  A back catalog of older episodes allows viewers to take their time catching up and feel good about the time when they watch.  Sure, these views may not give the immediacy of the Neilsen ratings, but so what?  That system is so antiquated, it needs to die.  Instead, we need a new ratings system that takes into account real viewers from streaming sites and next day views.  Skip the ‘night of’ viewership numbers and go with a model that resembles how people are actually watching TV today.  Internet enabled TVs are not going away and neither are mobile devices.  Hello advertisers like Proctor and Gamble, get with it.  Same day viewership of TV shows is over.  That day has passed.  The future of TV is through next day viewing or even month later views.  That’s where the advertising revenues will be had.

So Long ‘V’

It’s unfortunate that the producers felt the need to make stupid choices like ‘no streaming’.  It was a gamble that simply didn’t pay off.  It turned the series into a shambles through poor story choices.  Oh well, V has had its short-lived day.  Tomorrow is another day and with it new TV shows to sink your time slots into.  But, let’s just make sure they continue to do it on our, the viewer’s, terms.

To the producers, embrace change or perish.  That’s the prime lesson to take away from the ‘V’ experiment.  Yes, the V ‘no streaming’ experiment was truly a failure.

A call to boycott ABC’s V series

Posted in computers, entertainment, itunes, science fiction, streaming media, TV Shows by commorancy on January 20, 2011

[Update: V has been cancelled as of May 13th.  Bye ‘V’.].

I have personally decided to boycott watching the new V series. No, not because the series isn’t good. It’s a reasonably good series, so far. No, it’s also not for any creative or story reasons you might think. The reason I have decided to boycott the V series is that whomever owns the rights or produces this series has decided to no longer allow streaming of new episodes in any form or on any Internet site, like Hulu or iTunes.

No more V on Hulu?

It’s not just Hulu that’s cut out of streaming for this show. It’s all streaming sites including ABC’s very own ABC.com site. You would think that since ABC owns the broadcast rights to the series and, in fact, are the ones who make the very decision whether V lives or dies as a series, that ABC would have the rights to stream this program online. No, apparently they do not. Very odd. It’s also not available on iTunes or Amazon either.

It almost seems like the producers are biting the hand that feeds them (in more ways than just one). Seriously, not even allowing ABC.com to stream episodes of V on their own site? This seems like the kiss of death for this series.

Rationale behind this decision

I have no inside scoop here, so I really have no idea what the producers were thinking. But, I can only guess that the reasoning is to force viewers to watch the show live on ABC (the TV channel) and only on the TV channel for its first run. So, on the one hand, this seems like a ratings bonanza. On the other hand, let’s explore the downside of this decision.

Viewer Demographics

Because V is very much a long continuous story arc format, if you miss even two episodes, you’re hopelessly lost. V isn’t a one-off monster-of-the-week series where you can watch an episode now and then. No, it is a long deep story arc that needs to be watched one episode at a time in order.

On top of the long story arc format, it is a science fiction program involving heavy uses of technology and intrigue. This genre choice automatically limits the types of viewers. So, the types of viewers that V tends to draw in are those who tend to be younger, tech savvy, internet knowledgeable types. Basically, the kind of viewers who tend to watch things on Hulu and download content from iTunes.

Producer miscalculation

So, on the one hand, the appearance is that this decision should allow the program to get higher ratings by forcing people to watch it live. On the other hand, Hulu and iTunes (and others) no longer have the rights to carry the back catalog of episodes to allow people to catch up.  If viewers can’t catch up, they’ll not watch it live either. If you get lost, there is no reason to watch as you can’t understand what’s going on anyway.  So, turn the channel and watch something else.

By alienating the exact demographic who tends to watch programs on Hulu combined with the lack of back catalog of episodes on Hulu for people to catch up with missed episodes, my guess is that this decision will seriously backfire on the producers. The ratings will, instead, drop and drop precipitously as the season progresses. In fact, I’d venture to guess that this decision may, in fact, be the sole reason for the death of this series. It’s clear that ABC won’t keep V on the air without viewers.  We know that.  But, you can’t keep viewers watching V by trying to appeal to the wrong demographic or by pissing on the fan base.

The streaming and Internet genie is out of the bottle.  You can’t go back to a time before the Internet and Hulu existed.  The producers seriously need to understand this. It’s unfortunate that the producers chose V for this experiment.  So far, V appears to be a good series and is probably worth watching. But, the producers also need to realize that removing choices of where and how this program can be viewed is not the answer. You need more viewers, not less.

Underground distribution

Of course, that just means that people will create xvids or mp4s of the show and distribute them via torrents.   So, instead of seeing legitimate views on legitimate sites with legitimate ad revenue, the whole thing now gets pushed underground where there is no ad revenue and views don’t help the show or the producers at all.  Not smart.  Not smart at all.

What is the answer?

The answer lies with Neilsen Ratings. In a time where streaming and instant (day after) releases are nearly common place, Neilsen still has no strategy to cover this media with ratings. TV ratings are still and only counted by live views. This company is seriously antiquated. It still solely relies on active Neilsen households watching programs live. Hulu views, DVR views and iTunes downloads do not count towards viewership or ratings. Yet, these ‘day after’ views can be just as relevant (or even more) today than live views. Today, counting only live views is fundamentally wrong.

Change needs to come with the ratings companies, not by producers trying to force the 70s viewing style in 2011. Neilsen needs to count all views of a program no matter where they are or when they are. The ratings game needs to change and must change to accommodate the future of TV. As TVs become Internet connected, this change will become even more important. Eventually, TV programming will be seamlessly delivered over the Internet. In fact, there will come a time when you ‘tune in’ and you won’t even know if it’s streamed or over the air.  In fact, why should you care?  A view is a view whether live or a month later.

Understanding Neilsen’s antiquated system

Of course, once you understand Neilsen’s outdated model, you can also understand why Neilsen is not counting any ratings other than live TV.  Why is that?  Because counting any other medium than live TV threatens the very existence of Neilsen’s service. Once broadcasters realize they can gather these numbers through Hulu, Roku, Slingbox, Netflix and other DVR and on-demand technologies directly, there is no need for Neilsen.  That is, once we’ve moved to streaming TV 100% it’s easy to get accurate counts.  Neilsen’s service was born out of the need to track viewers in a time when the Internet did not exist.  With the Internet, it’s much easier to track viewer activity and data in real time.  It’s also easy to get this information right from the places that have rights to stream.  So, with these real-time reporting methodologies, Neilsen really is no longer necessary.

Neilsen has always used an extrapolation methodology for its ratings statistics, anyway.  That is, only a tiny subset of homes throughout the country are Neilsen households.  So, when these Neilsen households watch, these small numbers are extrapolated to the larger population, even though there is really no way to know what non-Neilsen households are watching.  So, Neilsen’s ratings systems are actually very inaccurate.  Counting the numbers of views from Hulu, iTunes, Amazon, Roku, Slingbox, Netflix and other streaming sites and technologies are exact and spot-on accurate.  In fact, these numbers are so exact, they can even be traced back to specific hardware devices and specific households, something Neilsen’s rating systems have never been capable of doing.  This is why Neilsen is scared to count online views.  This is why Neilsen is no longer needed.

Goodbye V

It was nice knowing ya. My instincts all say that the fan backlash from this decision will be swift and final. If this series manages to make it to the end of the 2011 spring season without cancellation, I’ll be amazed. However, if ABC cancels this show before June, that won’t surprise me. So, unless the producers make an about-face really fast with regards to this no-streaming experiment, this series is likely already cancelled… it just doesn’t yet know it. I’d also urge anyone reading (and especially Neilsen households) to boycott the new V series and send a message to the producers that not offering streaming options is not acceptable and that your program is dead without them. I can tell you that I won’t watch this series again until streaming options become available. This is not really a problem for me as there are plenty of other TV shows available. The problem here is for the cast and crew. These people are dedicating their time, effort and livelihoods to putting this series together only to be screwed over by the producers. Such is life in Hollywood, I guess.

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