Satellite Internet Connectivity May Help Those on the Move

Starlink, the satellite-based internet service provider from Elon Musk is generating a lot of buzz. If you hate your current ISP, it’s a promising alternative. If you live in a rural area, it’s an even more promising alternative. And if the pandemic pushed you into a more mobile lifestyle, Starlink could up the ante.

Satellite internet and phone service has been around for a long time, but it’s expensive and not nearly as fast as what you can get from your current ISP in an urban area. Viasat, one current provider, offers the fastest satellite internet speeds – up to 100 Mbps – and the most generous data allowances – up to 300 GB/mo. That runs up to $150/month. If you exceed your cap, the speeds drop. They have an unlimited plan that is $200 per month after an introductory period. HughesNet, the other big player has plans from $60 to $150 per month for 10 to 50 GB/mo. but with speeds up to 25 Mbps.

This is where Starlink enters. They’re hoping to take advantage of your hatred for your ISP (they claim 51 percent of Americans would sign up for their beta program once it’s available), and at first glance, it has an attraction. According to their figures, the average internet connection speed is 57.2 Mbps for $65/mo., an average of $1.13/Mbps. They claim you’ll be able to connect to Starlink at 103.1 Mbps for $99/mo., an average of $0.96/Mbps.

For terrestrial use, Starlink’s target is cities from 45 degrees north latitude (Lake Champlain, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Salem, OR to name a few) to 53 degrees (Calgary and Winnipeg in Canada). That’s way north of where most of you are likely to be. At 40 degrees, you might get some coverage in Newark and New York City. Starlink has already launched 1,000 satellites, but with a plan to have 42,000 in orbit, they have a long way to go. The FCC has approved 12,000 satellites.

But Starlink is not alone. Amazon has plans for Project Kuiper. While it hasn’t gotten off the ground yet, it is pitting Musk against Jeff Bezos. As two of the world’s richest individuals, they’ll be playing us as they square off, but at some point, we might win. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Amazon has approval for 3,200 satellites so far and hopes to have half of them launched by 2026.

In the meantime, Starlink is not cheap, either even though it may prove to be a bargain. You’ll need to pay $499 for a dish to use it. For most of us who are landlocked in urban America, we can generally do better with our current ISPs given all the demands we make on our bandwidth with working at home, schoolwork for our children and all those streaming devices we use.

But with the right equipment, Starlink will work in cars – and RVs. That jumps it to the head of the line for us. Before travel was restricted, we drove up and down the East Coast quite often. And anyone who’s run the length of I-95 knows that cell service decreases dramatically once you hit the South Carolina state line. It doesn’t get any better until you hit Florence.

If you have an RV and travel off the beaten path, getting internet service is always a concern. After all, we’re not willing to give up all the streaming capability we have at home, especially if we might still do work from the road. You’ll need to keep your Starlink dish in the car or RV with you.

You can go to Starlink’s website now to order your dish and download the iPhone or Android app for installation. Wherever you hope to use it, you will need a clear line of sight from the dish to the satellite(s).

We can help you decide if Starlink is for you and help you configure your system when it’s available. Just call us -973-433-6676 – or email us for an appointment.

Shopping and Shipping 2020 Style

If you ask us to pick one word to define the 2020 holiday shopping season, we’d say “paradoxical.” With the pressure on to buy early and ship early, there’s no doubt you need to move fast. But at the same time, you should take a step back and carefully consider everything you do.

First, why the rush? Why do you need to shop early? Two reasons come to mind: 1.) You want to make sure you can get the gifts you want, and 2.) you want to make sure it can be delivered on time.

Let’s look at that second point first. It’s no secret that our major delivery services are already overtaxed. Many retailers contract with major shippers, such as UPS and FedEx, to deliver a specific number of packages during the season. They have already told the retailers they may not be able to pick up everything that’s on the loading dock every day, so it’s likely not all packages from the retailers will be delivered on schedule. We’ve seen major delays all year long because of the pandemic, and now we’re entering a time of traditionally high shipping volume. We need to take this into account if we’re ordering products that will be sent directly to the recipient.

In a sense, the retailers are competing with anyone who sends a package for that increasingly precious space on the trucks. There will be many people who will want to buy a number of items and put them in a single box to send to a family member or friend. If you’re planning on doing that this year, it’s even more reason to shop early – just so you can ship early. UPS and FedEx, which normally boast a 97 percent on-time delivery success rate, and the Postal Service, which normally boasts a 95 percent success rate, have all moved up their deadlines for the holidays.

And in the chaotic rush to send packages on time and ensure they’re received, here’s a scam tactic to look out for -fake shipping notices. We referred to it in our email, and it’s worth repeating. Scammers can send notices with fake links for tracking information. If you receive a notice, look carefully at the email address it comes from. Scammers are really good at making them look real, and it’s easy to copy and paste a logo. The better idea – if you want someone to know you sent something – is to send them the tracking info directly without any links to a website. The recipient can go to the website from a browser and add the tracking info.

Now for the products.

Don’t be so bargain-obsessed that you get sucked into a trap. There are too many to describe out there. If you see a price that’s too good to be true, be wary. This is the time of year that fake stores pop up online, including those that claim to be Amazon stores. When you do your comparison shopping, look at more than just the price. Look into the retailer. Sellers get ratings and comments just like products, and you should go to independent rating sites for retailers just like you do for products.

Make sure that phone numbers and addresses on store sites are genuine, so you can contact the seller in case of problems. Also take a second look at URLs and app names. Misplaced or transposed letters are a scam giveaway but easy to miss. Finally, carefully read delivery, exchange, refund and privacy policies. If they are vague or nonexistent, take your business elsewhere.

If you see a really good price, make sure it’s for a current model of a product – or understand you’re getting a clearance price on an older, lesser or discontinued model. That can be especially true with electronics.

Once you’re satisfied, you’re buying a legit product from a legit seller, use a credit card to pay for it – and make sure the site has the proper security. That can be tough because it’s easy for a scammer to use a fake https:// in the URL and just as easy to throw up any kind of graphic. You can always pick up the phone to complete an order. Don’t pay by wire transfer, money order or gift card. You won’t have any way to effectively dispute any charges if you’re dissatisfied with the purchase or have been duped. Sellers that demand these types of payments are generally scammers.

If you’re giving a gift to someone in your household or nearby, ordering online and picking it up at the store may solve a number of potential problems. You’ll be able to verify you got what you ordered, and you won’t need to worry about shipping delays. We’ve been using curbside pickup more and more and highly recommend it if it’s a feasible option.

We’re here to help in many ways during this holiday season. If you think you may have accidentally compromised your online security in any way, call us – 973-433-6676 – immediately. If you need help with setting up electronic gifts, email us.

Health Wearables in Style at CES

Wearables caught our eye at this year’s CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas. There’s a wearable for almost any health condition, and that has its own set of pros and cons.

The big pro, as we see it, is that you can monitor so many health conditions, such as your heartbeat, blood pressure, blood sugar levels and if you have sleep apnea. A wearable can even detect AFib. The downsides, as we see them, are that there are too many proprietary technologies that require you to wear their own watch or wristband. That immediately conjured up in my mind an image of someone rolling up his sleeve and showing his arm full of watches – just like a guy trying to sell you something on the street.

We clearly will need some sort of a more ubiquitous watch, like an Apple Watch or Fitbit, to consolidate these capabilities into one wearable device. I would shudder at the thought of getting behind an overdressed health fanatic at airport security.

On a more helpful note, Amazon, Apple and Google are joining other internet and technology giants to join a project called “Connected Home Over IP”. The group aims to make it easier for device manufacturers to build products that are compatible with smart home and voice services such as Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant.

We like this development because it will reduce a lot of electronic clutter by allowing you to consolidate a variety of smart-home technologies into one platform. That can help you control them better from a smartphone, and it can help make your home more secure from hackers because you only need to worry about a single control point.

We’ve embraced a lot of smart-home technology in our family, and the convenience is a great benefit. But we’ve always wondered about where the security is. It’s up to us to demand better security from the internet industry and product manufacturers, and this is a step in that direction. However, it’s still up to you – more than ever – to secure your IoT devices to make your smart-home technology truly smart.

Finally, there was a lot of buzz over sex and technology. We’ll sidestep all the lurid details, but sex has always sold, so we’ll be in for more of it. One sex-product developer even won an award for innovation, but it was pulled after some heavy pushback.

Sex toys aside, more technology will continue to hit the markets for anything that affects your life – for work and for play. As you add more technology, you’ll need to make sure your network has the capacity to handle new devices and systems, and you’ll need to make sure it’s all secure. That’s where we can help. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to help get your new technology running.

Convenience vs. Competition: What do You Think?

The Department of Justice is beginning an investigation of “big data” companies and their hold on your online activity. This is not intended to be a political rant, but we’d like to know your thoughts on convenience vs. competition.

Here’s the executive summary of the DOJ’s investigation:

  • DOJ is reviewing whether and how market-leading online platforms – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and the rest of the usual suspects – have achieved market power and are engaging in practices that have reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers.
  • The review will consider the widespread concerns about competition that consumers, businesses, and entrepreneurs have expressed about search, social media, and some retail services online.
  • The goal of the review is to assess the competitive conditions in the online marketplace in an objective and fair-minded manner and to ensure Americans have access to free markets in which companies compete on their merits to provide services that users want. 
  • If violations of law are identified, the DOJ will proceed appropriately to seek redress.

The investigation – or review – caught our attention because Amazon’s recent Prime Day blew projected numbers out of the water. Why not? When you want to buy a product, what do you usually do? You use Google to find the best price or fastest delivery, and you generally go to an Amazon website – where Amazon has your address and credit card info on file. Yes, it’s basically one click or just a few, and your shiny new object is on its way – sometimes with same-day delivery.

I admit, that’s how we sometimes shop for products and make our purchase decisions. I don’t know if the size of Google and Amazon limits my choices – or if they limit them significantly. I might never know if a local merchant has a better product, price or customer service because smaller businesses don’t have the numbers to show up in a Google search where I can easily see it. I don’t know if another search engine (not Bing, which is Microsoft) would give me better results because Google is ingrained in my mind. It’s even become a verb.

We recognize that technology and laws are complex fields, and we’ll all have different opinions about what makes a good law. But we’d like your thoughts on competition and convenience. If you would answer a few questions either by return email or by leaving comments for everyone to see, we can share what’s important to us:

  • Do you automatically use Google for product searches?
  • Would you use another search engine if it were readily available and gave the results you needed?
  • Do you go to websites only at the top of a Google search?
  • Do you click on the ads at the top of the search results?
  • Do you go to a product provider’s website directly before or after seeing Amazon results?
  • Do you really care that Google and Amazon are so big that they might be stifling competition and limiting your choices?

Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

Kohls and Amazon Starting a Trend?

“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is an old adage. It applies to today’s retail environment, in which we love ordering stuff online but hate the process to return the stuff we don’t love. Kohls and Amazon may solve our problem while they help themselves with a new program.

Beginning in July, the companies will roll out nationally a program that began two years ago at 100 selected stores in Los Angeles, Chicago and Milwaukee. It should be a win-win-win for consumers, Amazon and Kohls when the program goes operational in some 1,150 locations in 48 states.

We expect to be able to return merchandise that doesn’t work out or when we change our minds. It’s especially true when we buy online because we’re buying it sight-unseen or without having tried on or tried out the product. In a report in the publication Retail Dive, more shoppers than ever factor returns into their purchasing decisions. They cite a report from Stockholm-based payments company Klarna, which shows that 82% of shoppers consider returns a routine part of shopping, while 84% say they’re more likely to buy from a store offering free returns. Sixty-two percent say they wouldn’t purchase from a store that doesn’t offer free returns.

The numbers show online shoppers want a more seamless experience and will reward retailers who deliver it. Nearly half (44%) of respondents say slow returns are the most frustrating part of the returns process, as anyone will attest to. You have to put the product back in the box (a challenge of its own), seal it and bring it to a designated shipper. Still, 86% say they are more likely to return to a retailer that offers free returns.

Clearly, we demand mulligans, and that creates logistics issues for online retailers.

First, Amazon, which could handle 50% of online purchases by 2023, doesn’t have many retail outlets. Yes, you can pick up Amazon-ordered merchandise at Whole Foods, and the company is experimenting with cashless retail stores, which can be pick-up points. But those types of stores are not equipped to take back large volumes of clothing or household goods. The return program with Kohls gives Amazon customers a convenient place to bring back unwanted items, and Kohls must obviously have the logistics network capable of handling the returns.

Kohls can win by getting traffic into its stores. That’s a no-brainer. Just because you return something doesn’t always mean you don’t need the item. Who knows? You might find just what you need or want – in the right size or better style – while you walk through the store. And if you carried an item into a store, you can certainly carry it home.

The return policy covers “eligible” items, which may have something to do with size. You’ll be able to find out when you initiate the return process online, which is a requirement. You’ll need to take care of authorizations and paperwork through your Amazon account.

Our only advice: Make sure you maintain tight security for your network and account passwords. Any questions, call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us.

Apple TV+ – Delicious or Wormy?

Apple has announced it will launch its own TV streaming service this fall, Apple TV+. Apple will join Netflix, Amazon and others in providing content. We don’t what it will cost, and we don’t know if the experience will be delicious or full of worms. But we can count on Apple disrupting the market and changing the game. It’s how they play it.

Let’s start with the promises. Apple claims its new stream will be “the new home for the world’s most creative storytellers featuring exclusive original shows, movies and documentaries.” If you want a hint about if they’ll be able to keep that promise, they will debut with a sneak peek through a new Apple TV app that works across iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Mac, smart TVs and streaming devices. You’ll be able to subscribe to Apple’s TV channels a la carte and watch them through the app.

You may want to look at Apple’s move as another reason to cut the cable cord, but we don’t see it that way. Even though increasing numbers of people are streaming programs through their TVs, in addition to computers and devices, cable companies are accommodating customers who want programming from “non-TV” providers. You can get Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Apple – in addition to premium content providers such as HBO and Showtime – through your cable system. And why not? As gatekeepers, they’re happy to pick off a few dollars in subscriber fees from any and all content providers.

And it’s as a gatekeeper and content provider that Apple may be trying to maximize its hold on content viewing. Apple has a big market share of smartphones and an even bigger share of tablets – all in addition to a large base of Mac computers. But it’s way behind Roku and Amazon for connected TVs with only 15 percent of the market. Further, more than half of the nation’s TV streamers use Roku or Fire TV, and some 30 percent use smart TVs. Apple gets only 15 percent of the streamers. Clearly, Apple will need to partner with those who deliver content just as much as it will need to provide strong content to make this venture work.

We don’t know what Apple TV+ will cost, but various sources figure it will fall somewhere in the range of $10 to $15 per month. Apple could undercut the market with attractive intro deals. They have the resources to do it if they wish. With a push based on low prices and innovative programming, Apple could disrupt the industries that create and deliver content, especially in the short term. But history tells us that other industry giants will react to meet their own needs – and that some upstart will find a way to step on the giants’ toes.

Whatever happens, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • High-definition streaming requires a fast internet connection and a powerful Wi-Fi network. If you have multiple high-def TVs and a slew of devices, you’ll need lots of speed and capacity.
  • Many consumers get their internet from cable providers, and there are some things you need to balance when figuring out how much content to get from cable or the internet. Cable companies are willing to give you good internet speed if you’re a cable TV customer. If you are an internet-only customer, you may pay more for your connection, and you may face caps on how much data you can download. For the cable companies, it’s all about profitability.
  • How and where do you want to watch your content? Cable is good for big TVs for large groups, but you can take your devices anywhere. Consider the price of what you watch on. You can get a really good, fairly big TV for $500 or less, and you can pay twice that much for a mobile device.

We can help you make smart decisions about how and where you’ll watch programming by looking at the technology currently in your home and recommending what you’ll need to have a system that works for your preferences. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us for answers to your questions or to set up an appointment to discuss your needs.

We’re Not Neutral on Net Neutrality

The intended repeal of net neutrality by the FCC will affect all of us. We’re likely to see the first changes as they affect the cost and availability of streamed programming and premium content; less is likely to cost more. We don’t know, yet, how it will affect search engines and your ability to find local businesses or anything else on the internet.

 Let’s start with a quick review of the history of the internet. It began as a level playing field for exchanging information worldwide, and it led to a communications revolution. It mightily disrupted the communications industry’s business models in every way imaginable.

Telephone calls, for example, are free or cost just pennies per minute to almost anywhere in the world. We can even make video calls for free. The internet, in this case, took away a revenue stream from traditional telephone carriers – and added a business capability for the cable TV industry.

Telephone service – or voice communication – became essentially a throw-in for telephone carriers and cable providers. Even if they were restricted in some markets in certain ways, at least one of each plus a satellite carrier could compete for your business. That led to service tiers and bundles of programming that customers were likely to buy.

Cable or satellite TV, in turn, was impacted by the internet. You don’t need a cable connection – or a satellite dish – to get all manner of visual content: TV shows, movies, etc. All you had to do was buy and install a good Wi-Fi system in your home and pay for fast enough internet service, and you could pick and choose what you wanted to watch.

This setup, which has continued until now, has allowed a number of smaller, innovative companies to get into the content business, either as producers or carriers. Companies that have innovated in some way, shape or form have become big-time players in the internet. Google, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft and the like are relatively new companies that grew rapidly by exploiting technology.

But those companies are not ISPs (Internet Service Providers). The ISP business is essentially comprised of telephone and cable carriers, and that business has been commoditized. How many of us have switched ISPs at the drop of a hat to save a few bucks on basic services or add new features for very little additional cost? How many of us have simply dropped cable or satellite TV?

One of the factors that has contributed to our freedom of choice is Net Neutrality. Simply put, it is a governmental regulation that prohibits any ISP from blocking or slowing down virtually any content from virtually any provider. If you pay for 300-mbs internet service or 1-gigabit service, you can get it at that speed because the ISP can’t block it or slow it down.

That’s different from most cable or satellite TV services. Ever since their inception, they have sold blocks of programming in tiers. The more programming you want, the more you pay. If you want to pay less, you sacrifice choice – or you choose not to get high-definition service. That was OK because with Net Neutrality, you could get programming over the internet, and you could price your service more selectively.

The removal of Net Neutrality means that your internet service will now be bundled like cable/satellite TV programming. You want to stream Netflix or Amazon programming? There could be a premium charge for that. You want to stream sports or news programming? Your ISP can negotiate with the program providers to determine which ones they’ll carry and at what data speeds. No matter how it happens, your cost is likely to go up.

And there’s more. What about your favorite search engine? Why has Google fought so hard to become the dominant search engine? Why does Facebook keep trying to expand its user base? You know why: they can get more advertising dollars. Who doesn’t get any benefit from that now? Your ISP.

With the removal of Net Neutrality, search engines will need to strike deals with ISPs just like programmers have had to do, and then you’ll have to decide on an ISP based on a search engine you might want – as well as what websites you might want to access. Or, will some carriers show preferences for certain businesses? What’s to prevent one from favoring a shopping site over others in return for a higher access fee? What’s to prevent a consumer products company from being priced out of a website presence by bigger, well-financed conglomerates?

All of the innovation that we’ve seen? It’s going to be harder and harder for startups to get a foothold. We think the end of Net Neutrality will lead to higher prices and fewer choices for anything that we’ve become accustomed to finding on the internet. At least that will be the case until something new comes along. You can bet somebody’s hard at work developing the next alternative.

In the meantime, you can count on us to help you navigate the new world of the internet. We can help you select and install the networking equipment you’ll need to be compatible with your ISP and/or TV provider and make sure all interfaces and security systems function properly. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us with any questions you have as Net Neutrality events unfold.