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Friday, February 29, 2008

Robots as part of daily life

Bill Passed to Vitalize Korea's Robotics Industry
Korea's robotics industry is coming alive with support from lawmakers. The National Assembly passed a bill Tuesday aimed at stimulating the development and distribution of "intelligent robots."
An intelligent robot refers to service or personal robots that interact with people for various needs like educating children and helping out old people in their daily lives.

An intelligent robot is a step forward from a one-armed manipulator that's limited to repetitive tasks, as intelligent robots are able to recognize their surroundings and cope with changing situations.

The new law calls for developing research plans and policies to promote the intelligent robot market as well as creating industrial standards for robotics products.

The law also allows for establishing special investment firms targeting robotics manufacturers.

The Commerce, Industry and Energy Ministry says as of 2006 Korea stood sixth in the world for its domestic robotics market size and the industry is marching ahead by 35 percent per year.

The Center for Intelligent Robots has already been carrying out projects to advance intelligent robotics and create better infrastructure for utilizing robots.

And they say by 2020 Korea can be one of the leading countries for intelligent robot production as it already relies heavily on robots in manufacturing and also possesses advanced IT, another key ingredient for putting robots to work
Japan experiments with robots as part of daily life
At a university lab in a Tokyo suburb, engineering students are wiring a rubbery robot face to simulate six basic expressions: anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise and disgust.

Hooked up to a database of words clustered by association, the robot _ dubbed Kansei, or "sensibility" _ responds to the word "war" by quivering in what looks like disgust and fear. It hears "love," and its pink lips smile.

"To live among people, robots need to handle complex social tasks," said project
leader Junichi Takeno of Meiji University. "Robots will need to work with emotions, to understand and eventually feel them.

While robots are a long way from matching human emotional complexity, the country is perhaps the closest to a future _ once the stuff of science fiction _ where humans and intelligent robots routinely live side by side and interact socially.

Robots are already taken for granted in Japanese factories, so much so that they are sometimes welcomed on their first day at work with Shinto religious ceremonies. Robots make sushi. Robots plant rice and tend paddies.

There are robots serving as receptionists, vacuuming office corridors, spoon-feeding the elderly. They serve tea, greet company guests and chatter away at public technology displays. Now startups are marching out robotic home helpers.

They aren't all humanoid. The Paro is a furry robot seal fitted with sensors beneath its fur and whiskers, designed to comfort the lonely, opening and closing its eyes and moving its flippers.

For Japan, the robotics revolution is an imperative. With more than a fifth of the population 65 or older, the country is banking on robots to replenish the work force and care for the elderly.

In the past several years, the government has funded a plethora of robotics-related efforts, including some 4.6 billion yen (US$42.7 million;euro28.7 million) for the first phase of a humanoid robotics project, and 1.1 billion yen (US$10.2 million;euro6.8 million) a year between 2006 and 2010 to develop key robot technologies.

The government estimates the industry could surge from about 558 billion yen (US$5.2 billion;euro3.5 billion) in 2006 to 3 trillion yen (US$26 billion;euro17.5 billion) in 2010 and nearly 7.5 trillion yen (US$70 billion;euro47 billion) by 2025.

Besides financial and technological power, the robot wave is favored by the Japanese mind-set as well.

Robots have long been portrayed as friendly helpers in Japanese popular culture, a far cry from the often rebellious and violent machines that often inhabit Western science fiction.

This is, after all, the country that invented Tamagotchi, the hand-held mechanical pets that captivated the children of the world.

Japanese are also more accepting of robots because the native Shinto religion often blurs boundaries between the animate and inanimate, experts say. To the Japanese psyche, the idea of a humanoid robot with feelings doesn't feel as creepy _ or as threatening _ as it might do in other cultures.

Still, Japan faces a vast challenge in making the leap _ commercially and culturally _ from toys, gimmicks and the experimental robots churned out by labs like Takeno's to full-blown human replacements that ordinary people can afford and use safely.

"People are still asking whether people really want robots running around their homes, and folding their clothes," said Damian Thong, senior technology analyst at Macquarie Bank in Tokyo.

"But then again, Japan's the only country in the world where everyone has an electric toilet," he said. "We could be looking at a robotics revolution."

That revolution has been going on quietly for some time.

Japan is already an industrial robot powerhouse. Over 370,000 robots worked at factories across Japan in 2005, about 40 percent of the global total and 32 robots for every 1,000 Japanese manufacturing employees, according to a recent report by Macquarie, which had no numbers from subsequent years.

And they won't be claiming overtime or drawing pensions when they're retired.

"The cost of machinery is going down, while labor costs are rising," said Eimei Onaga, CEO of Innovation Matrix Inc., a company that distributes Japanese robotics technology in the U.S. "Soon, robots could even replace low-cost workers at small firms, greatly boosting productivity."

That's just what the Japanese government has been counting on. A 2007 national technology roadmap by the Trade Ministry calls for 1 million industrial robots to be installed throughout the country by 2025.

A single robot can replace about 10 employees, the roadmap assumes _ meaning Japan's future million-robot army of workers could take the place of 10 million humans. That's about 15 percent of the current work force.

"Robots are the cornerstone of Japan's international competitiveness," Shunichi Uchiyama, the Trade Ministry's chief of manufacturing industry policy, said at a recent seminar. "We expect robotics technology to enter even more sectors going forward."

Meanwhile, localities looking to boost regional industry clusters have seized on robotics technology as a way to spur advances in other fields.

Robotic technology is used to build more complex cars, for instance, and surgical equipment.

The logical next step is robots in everyday life.

At a hospital in Aizu Wakamatsu, 300 kilometers (190 miles) north of Tokyo, a child-sized white and blue robot wheels across the floor, guiding patients to and from the outpatients' surgery area.

The robot, made by startup Tmsk, sports perky catlike ears, recites simple greetings, and uses sensors to detect and warn people in the way. It helpfully prints out maps of the hospital, and even checks the state of patients' arteries.

The Aizu Chuo Hospital spent about some 60 million yen (US$557,000;euro375,000) installing three of the robots in its waiting rooms to test patients' reactions. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, said spokesman Naoya Narita.

"We feel this is a good division of labor. Robots won't ever become doctors, but they can be guides and receptionists," Narita said.

Still, the wheeled machines hadn't won over all seniors crowding the hospital waiting room on a weekday morning.

"It just told us to get out of the way!" huffed wheelchair-bound Hiroshi Asami, 81. "It's a robot. It's the one who should get out my way."

"I prefer dealing with real people," he said.

Another roadblock is money.

For all its research, Japan has yet to come up with a commercially successful consumer robot. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. failed to sell even one of its pricey toddler-sized Wakamaru robots, launched in 2003 as domestic helpers.

Though initially popular, Sony Corp. pulled the plug on its robot dog, Aibo, in 2006, just seven years after its launch. With a price tag of a whopping 200,000 yen (US$2,000;euro1,350), Aibo never managed to break into the mass market.

One of the only commercially successful consumer robots so far is made by an American company, iRobot Corp. The Roomba vacuum cleaner robot is self-propelled and can clean rooms without supervision.

"We can pretty much make anything, but we have to ask, what are people actually going to buy?" said iRobot CEO Helen Greiner. The company has sold 2.5 million Roombas _ which retail for as little as US$120 (euro81) _ since the line was launched in 2002.

Still, with the correct approach, robots could provide a wealth of consumer goods, Greiner stressed at a recent convention.

Sure enough, Japanese makers are catching on, launching low-cost robots like Tomy's 31,290 yen (US$280;euro185) i-Sobot, a toy-like hobby robot that comes with 17 motors, can recognize spoken words and can be remote-controlled.

Sony is also trying to learn from past mistakes, launching a much cheaper 40,000 yen (US$350;euro235) rolling speaker robot last year that built on its robotics technology.

"What we need now isn't the ultimate humanoid robot," said Kyoji Takenaka, the head of the industry-wide Robot Business Promotion Council.

"Engineers need to remember that the key to developing robots isn't in the lab, but in everyday life."

Still, some of the most eye-catching developments in robotics are coming out of Japan's labs.

Researchers at Osaka University, for instance, are developing a robot to better understand child development.

The "Child-Robot with Biomimetic Body" is designed to mimic the motions of a toddler. It responds to sounds, and sensors in its eyes can see and react to people. It wiggles, changes facial expressions, and makes gurgling sounds.

The team leader, Minoru Asada, is working on artificial intelligence software that would allow the child to "learn" as it progresses.

"Right now, it only goes, 'Ah, ah.' But as we develop its learning function, we hope it can start saying more complex sentences and moving on its own will," Asada said. "Next-generation robots need to be able to learn and develop themselves."

For Hiroshi Ishiguro, also at Osaka University, the key is to make robots that look like human beings. His Geminoid robot looks uncannily like himself _ down to the black, wiry hair and slight tan.

"In the end, we don't want to interact with machines or computers. We want to interact with technology in a human way so it's natural and valid to try to make robots look like us," he said.

"One day, they will live among us," Ishiguro said. "Then you'd have to ask me: 'Are you human? Or a robot?'"

Microsoft cutting price of Vista :Microsoft e-mails reveal Intel pressure over Vista

Microsoft has said it plans to cut the cost of its Windows Vista operating system sold at retail outlets.
Although no exact date has yet been given, Microsoft said price cuts would be introduced in 70 countries.

In the US, the cost of the most expensive version, Vista Ultimate, will be reduced to $319 (£161) from the current retail price of $399.

Analysts said Microsoft was aiming to boost the number of customers upgrading to Vista, which was introduced in 2007.

Really its a'Greater opportunities'

The price cuts apply to the packaged versions of Vista, which account for less than 10% of its sales.

By contract, 90% of Vista sales are to PC manufacturers, which the operating system is pre-installed.

"We anticipate these changed will provide greater opportunities... to sell more stand-alone copies of Windows," said Brad Brooks, a Microsoft corporate vice president.

Microsoft says it has now sold 100 million Vista licences since it was launched.

As far back as 2005, Microsoft executives knew that confusing hardware requirements for the Windows Vista Capable program might get them in trouble. But they did it anyway--over the objection of PC makers--at the behest of Intel, according to e-mails released as part of a class-action lawsuit pending against Microsoft.

In early 2006, Intel's Renee James, vice president and general manager of Intel's software and solutions group, was able to prevail on Microsoft's Will Poole to change the proposed requirements for Microsoft's proposed "Vista Ready" marketing program to include an older integrated graphics chipset that couldn't run Vista's Aero interface. At the time, Intel was worried that it wouldn't be able to ship the more advanced 945 chispet, which was capable of running Aero, in step with Microsoft's proposed schedule for the introduction of the marketing upgrade plan.

This led to the creation of the "Vista Capable" logo, which is the reason Microsoft is now in court, facing a class-action lawsuit on the part of PC owners who bought so-called Vista Capable machines in late 2006 only to find those machines could only run Vista Basic, which doesn't feature the Aero interface. The potential for confusion was well-understood both outside the company, as noted here in this CNET story from March 2006, and within the company, as multiple e-mail threads reveal.

treasure trove of e-mails has been released as part of that case, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Todd Bishop has spotlighted a number of e-mails that call into question whether Microsoft was acting, at least in part, on Intel's behalf when it set the requirements for the Vista Capable marketing program. Several pages of e-mails were redacted by the court. All e-mails quoted in this report were taken verbatim, typos and all, from a PDF file put together by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in a blog posted by Bishop yesterday.

"In the end, we lowered the requirement to help Intel make their quarterly earnings so they could continue to sell motherboards with the 915 graphics embedded," Microsoft's John Kalkman wrote in a February 2007 e-mail to Scott Di Valerio, who at the time managed Microsoft's relationships with the PC companies and recently took a job with Lenovo. The change took place in January 2006, and was formally rolled out by Poole, currently corporate vice president of Microsoft's unlimited potential group, without the knowledge of Jim Allchin, the now-departed Microsoft executive who was supposed to be in charge of Vista's development

Intel declined to comment on specific e-mails until it had a chance to review them. But in response to the Kalkman e-mail, read to a Intel representative, the company said, "We do not know who John Kalkman is. We do know that he is not qualified to know anything about Intel's internal financials or forecasts related to chipsets, motherboard or any other products. He would have no visibility into our financial needs in any given quarter."

(Credit: Microsoft)The planning for the Vista Capable program started long before it was publicly announced in May 2006, a few months after the final delay in Vista's ship date was announced. The idea was to mimic what Microsoft did with Windows XP, to assure customers buying PCs sold within a few months of the launch date that their hardware could run the new operating system when it was formally released. This helps PC makers avoid a swoon in demand in the weeks and months prior to the launch of a new operating system.

Microsoft knew that Vista's Aero interface would put a significant strain on the hardware used in those PCs, and so in 2005 it started putting requirements together for the Vista Ready program using Intel's 945 chipset as the baseline chipset needed for designation as "Vista Ready."

Eric Charbonneau, an unidentified Microsoft executive, told his direct reports in August 2005 in an e-mail that the older 915 chipset wouldn't cut it. "Any OEM who plans to ship an Intel 915 chipset system (using UMA, without separate discrete graphics hardware) for Summer 2006 needs to know that: 1. Their systems will not be eligible for the Windows Vista Ready designation..." Simply put, the 915 chipset couldn't support the Windows Vista Display Driver Model (WDDM), and that capability was a requirement at the time for being able to slap a "Vista Ready" sticker on a PC.

However, at some point between that e-mail and January 2006, Microsoft changed its stance on the 915 chipset. The 945 chipset was Intel's top-of-the-line integrated graphics chipset when it was introduced in May 2005, but it still sold lots of lower-end 915 chipsets in both desktops and notebooks. Intel didn't launch the notebook version of the 945 chipset until January 2006, and was apparently concerned that it would be unable to get enough 945 systems into the market by the middle of 2006, the (at the time) launch expectation for the Vista Ready program.

With notebooks a far-faster growing segment of the PC market than desktops, Intel apparently felt that if only 945 chipsets were deemed Vista Ready, that demand for systems with 915 chipsets--still a significant mix of its products--would fall off the face of the earth. And also, that it would be unable to produce enough 945 chipsets to meet its committments to PC makers--orders that might otherwise go to Advanced Micro Devices.
In January 2006, Poole sent an e-mail to several Microsoft executives informing them that the plan had changed, and that Intel approved. "I went over the new plan with Renee tonight. Not surprisingly, she is pleased with the outcome. I told her we wanted to communicate to OEMs and retail first, and then they can cascade their own communication. They are losing orders every day, so we need to get a simple communication out ASAP."

In February 2006, one month after Will Poole informed the Vista team of the decision, Microsoft's Will Johnson wrote an e-mail laying out some more of the specifics.

"We have removed the WDDM requirement for Vista Capable machines, the modern CPU and 512 RAM requirements remain intact, but the specific component that enables the graphical elements of Windows Vista (re: aeroglass) has been removed. This was based on a huge concern raised by Intel regarding 945 chipset production supply and the fact that we wanted to get as many PCs as possible logo'd by the 4/1 US retail REV date. The push to retail should be that while this opens up a wider band of machines to being Vista Capable retailers should be very aggressive in communicating to their OEMs (and thus Intel) to maximize production of 945 chipset equipped machines going forward."

According to e-mails exchanged, many inside Microsoft were appalled at the decision to let Intel's supply concerns dictate its marketing policies. Now Microsoft had to go out and create a two-tiered program promoting both "Vista Capable" machines and "Vista Premium Ready" machines.

A Vista Capable sticker would simply mean the PC could run Vista Basic, allowing PC makers to promote their PCs as "Vista" PCs while glossing over the fact that the minimum hardware requirements for that label couldn't really handle the improved graphics that were one of the major reasons to upgrade to Vista. This confusion was exactly what Microsoft and its PC partners hoped to avoid when they were first drawing up the requirements in the first place, and several e-mails show those concerns were shared widely prior to, and following, Poole's decision.

Hewlett-Packard was particularly incensed, since it had decided to adopt Intel's 945 chipset more aggressively, believing it was the only chipset that would support the Vista Ready program.

Microsoft's Mark Croft wrote in response to Poole's e-mail that, "We need good messaging for the elimination of WDDM in Capable, as we have had this as a requirement since inception over 18 months ago."

But perhaps the most surprised executive inside Microsoft at the move was Allchin, the head of the Vista development team.

"We really botched this," he wrote in a thread responded to Poole's e-mail. "I was not involved in the decision making process and I will support it because I trust you thinking behind the logic. BUT, you have to do a better job with customers that what was shown here. This was especially true because you put me out on a limb making a commitment. This is not ok."

Will Poole, co-head of Microsoft's emerging markets efforts, who authored the e-mail acknowledging pressure from Intel.

(Credit: Microsoft)Later, in a private e-mail, Mike Ybarra of Microsoft pleaded with Alchin to step in and reverse the decision. "Jim, I am passionate about this and believe this decision is a mistake," he wrote. "We are caving to Intel. We worked hard the last 18 months to drive the UI experience and we are giving this up."

Allchin appeared to agree in his response, but seemed resigned to fate.

"It might be a mistake. I wasn't involved and it is hard for me to step in now and reverse everything again," he wrote to Ybarra. "We might be able to thread the needle here if we make 'capable' just related to 'old' type hardware."

And so, confusion began, just as Microsoft employees and partners predicted it would. Some Microsoft marketing units started saying that the even older 865 chipset would now qualify for the Vista logo program, which was squashed. But it was easy to see where the confusion stemmed once the requirement for WDDM was dropped, as essentially anything relatively modern that could easily run Windows XP would be capable of running Vista Basic.

Anantha Kancheria wrote to Rajesh Srinivasan as part of a discussion in March 2006 around the 865 confusion, and employed a little gallows humor.

"Based on the objective criteria that exist today for capable even a piece of junk would qualify. :) So based on that yes 865 would qualify. For the sake of Vista customers, it would be a complete tragedy if we allowed it. I don't know how to help you prevent it."

The 865 was eventually scrubbed from the program, but the 915 was allowed to remain. And so, PCs with the 915 chipset were sold as Windows Vista Capable, while others sold with the 945 chipset or better were labeled Vista Premium Ready. As predicted, confusion ensued, and even Microsoft executives and directors were snared.

Steve Sinofsky, the former head of Microsoft office development and current head of Windows and Windows Live development, wrote an e-mail to Microsoft's Brad Goldberg in July 2006 asking about a Dell Latitude he purchased that he thought was labeled as "Vista Ready," but in reality didn't have enough graphics hardware to run Vista.

Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft senior vice president, Windows and Windows Live Engineering Group

(Credit: Microsoft)Goldberg, then vice president of Windows product management, explained, "Some PCs that are windows vista capable will run aero and some will not. In the interim we've created a marketing designation that allows OEMs to market PCs as "premium ready." every pc that is premium ready will run aero."

Goldberg continued, "for holiday oems will be heavily pushing premium ready machines but because Intel was late with their integrated chipset the majority of the machines on the market today are windows vista capable but not premium ready. originally we wanted to set the capable bar around aero but there are a bunch of reasons why we had to back off...a bit messy and a long story that I'm happy to walk you through if helpful. :)" Goldberg has since been reassigned.

In January 2007, Jon Shirley, a former Microsoft COO and current member of the board of directors, wrote CEO Steve Ballmer an e-mail complaining about driver support for some peripherals he wanted to use with his Vista PC. Ballmer forwarded the e-mail to Sinofsky, asking for input on whether Microsoft should be doing anything differently.

Sinofsky launched into a post-mortem on Vista itself, with this graph pertaining to Intel.

"Intel has the biggest challenge. Their "945" chipset which is the baseline Vista set "barely" works right now and is very broadly used. The "915" chipset which is not Aero capable is in a huge number of laptops and was tagged as "Vista Capable" but not Vista Premium. I don't know if this was a good call. But these function will never be great. Even the 945 set has new builds of drivers coming out consistently but hopes are on the next chipset rather than this one."

Ballmer's response? "Righto thanks."

Microsoft is now defending itself against claims the Vista Capable program was misleading and unfair, all thanks to a decision to allow Intel to sell older chipsets that couldn't run Vista's Aero interface--really one of the main reasons to upgrade--with the word "Vista" attached. As the e-mails show, many within the company knew they were heading down this path when they embarked on a two-tier logo program, but the need to keep Intel happy--over the objection of the world's largest PC maker--won out in the end.

UPDATED: 6:25 p.m., PST - Microsoft issued the following statement after this blog was posted: "We included the 915 chipset as part of the Windows Vista Capable program based on successful testing of beta versions of Windows Vista on the chipset and the broad availability of the chipset in the market. Computers equipped with this chipset were and are capable of being upgraded to Windows Vista Home Basic. Microsoft authorized the use of the Premium Ready designation on PCs that could support premium features of Windows Vista."

Dell Profit Falls Short, Stock Down Late

Dell reported a 6.5% drop in net income in the quarter ended Feb. 1 to $679 million from $726 million the same period a year ago. Contributing to the decline was $83 million in expenses related to research and development stemming from the recent acquisitions of EqualLogic and Everdream, and $54 million in expenses related to severance costs and facility closures from the company's restructuring efforts

The world's second-largest personal-computer maker, which has been moving beyond direct sales into the retail sector to better compete with No. 1 Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ), warned that it could incur costs as it realigns its business to boost growth and profitability. In recent after-hours trading, Dell shares were at $20.07, down 3.8% from Thursday's close. Dell's stock has lost nearly a third of its value since October as recession worries hurt the technology sector.

Dell reported net income of $679 million, or 31 cents a share, for the quarter ended Feb. 1. In the prior-year period, Dell's net income was $726 million, or 32 cents a share. The latest quarter included 11 cents in charges and stock-compensation costs.

Revenue rose 11% to $15.99 billion from $14.47 billion. Analysts polled by Thomson Financial had expected the Round Rock, Texas, company to post earnings, excluding items, of 36 cents a share on revenue of $16.27 billion.

Gross margin rose to 18.8% from 17.1%.

U.S. consumer revenue grew 12%, driven by a 25% increase in shipments, aided by new product offerings and the company's expansion into retail. "Unit share increased by over three points - the largest quarterly gain in over three years," Dell said.

Revenue at the company's mobility unit, which sells laptops, rose 24%.

Looking ahead, Dell warned it will "continue to incur costs" as it realigns its business to improve growth and profitability. "While the company believes these actions are necessary to drive long-term sustainable value, they may adversely impact the company's near-term performance." Dell also said results could be "adversely impacted by more conservative spending by its customers."

However, Dell said it is "benefiting from accelerating growth and an improving mix of products and geographic regions," and it "expects to achieve substantial improvements in cost and productivity."

Dell said earlier this month it is cutting more than 1,200 jobs, about 900 of them at a call center in Canada. That followed last year's announcement that Dell would lay off 10% of its work force.

In November, Dell warned that its near-term performance might be hurt by further restructuring and a slower decline in component costs. It said the restructuring moves were "necessary to drive long-term sustainable value." Dell also warned it might be hurt by a seasonal shift in mix.

Before Thursday's results, some observers had said Dell was starting to see light at the end of the tunnel, after ceding its crown to rival Hewlett-Packard as the world's largest computer maker.

In January, as part of its effort to halt declining market shares and falling sales, Dell added Best Buy Co. (BBY) to the list of retail chains which now sell its computers. The list had already included Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Staples Inc. (SPLS). Also in January, tracking firm Gartner Inc. said Dell's worldwide PC shipments grew 17% in the fourth quarter.

Dell, which has resumed its stock-buyback program following the end of an internal accounting probe, said it spent $4 billion to buy back 179 million shares of common stock in the quarter. It said it expects to buy back at least $1 billion of stock in the first quarter.

Comcast faces a backlash of bad publicity and increasing skepticism about the way the telecommunications giant runs its high-speed Internet service

After a hearing into Comcast Corp.'s Internet policies this week, the company faces a backlash of bad publicity and increasing skepticism about the way the telecommunications giant runs its high-speed Internet service.

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ABC to offer shows via video-on-demand
FCC chief says providers can't block access 'arbitrarily'
FCC ready to curb ISP traffic management
Internet rights on debate at Harvard
Critics have denounced Comcast for paying people to occupy seats in the cramped Harvard Law School lecture hall where the Federal Communications Commission hearing was held, preventing many critics from gaining admittance. Comcast officials said they were merely trying to save enough seats for company executives. But Josh Silver, executive director of the Internet activist group Free Press, said the hired guests stayed on, preventing many Comcast critics from attending the hearing.

There are about 300 seats in the lecture hall, and when they were all filled people were turned away.

"Comcast had these guys sit through the first entire half of the day to keep those seats full," Silver said.

Despite having friends in the audience, Comcast took a verbal beating at Monday's hearing, from FCC commissioners and hostile witnesses alike. The controversy over Comcast's network management policies has helped revive the once-dormant debate on "Net neutrality," the concept of forcing Internet companies to treat all data on their networks exactly alike.

Companies like Google Inc. and online video provider Vuze Inc., which use the Internet to distribute their services, say Net neutrality is vital to their businesses. But Internet providers like Comcast say there are legitimate business and technical reasons for them to offer different levels of service to different kinds of traffic.

Broadband providers designed their network for users who mostly swap e-mails and visit websites - tasks which don't transmit, or upload, very much data. So broadband systems are designed to receive, or download, data much faster than they can upload it. "We have to engineer and manage the network for typical usage of a vast majority of customers," said Mitch Bowling, Comcast's senior vice president of online services.

But these days, many Internet subscribers use peer-to-peer software that lets thousands of Internet users share large files by uploading and downloading them to each others' computers. So when a computer with BitTorrent downloads a TV show, it starts uploading the same show to other users. As a result, many Internet users now upload far more traffic than broadband providers expected. And Bowling said just a few of these users can consume most of the capacity on a neighborhood Internet "node," which may serve several hundred households.

Comcast copes with the problem by sometimes slowing down BitTorrent data uploads from its customers' computers. Last year, BitTorrent users complained about problems on the Comcast network, but the company refused to confirm the policy until last October. Comcast still insists it has done nothing wrong. "We have to engineer and manage the network for typical usage of a vast majority of customers," said Bowling. "We are simply managing the network for the greater good

But Vuze, which filed the FCC complaint that led to Monday's hearing, uses BitTorrent to send videos to its subscribers. Comcast's policy to slow these file transfers could hurt Vuze's business. Indeed, the company argued that Comcast could use "network management" as an excuse to fend off Vuze's challenge to Comcast's cable TV business. "By degrading the high-quality video content by which Vuze differentiates itself in the marketplace, network operators can seek a competitive edge," said Vuze in its FCC complaint.

more stories like thisVirtually everyone who spoke at the hearing agreed that Comcast should provide far more information about how it manages its network. But there's less uniformity about whether to regulate the practice or ban it altogether.

Free Press wants Net neutrality legislation that would make it illegal for networks to discriminate against particular kinds of Internet traffic, such as BitTorrent. The group's general counsel, Marvin Ammori, said if Comcast installed better technology, it would be able to handle BitTorrent traffic with little trouble. But Comcast has said it will reduce its capital expenditures this year compared with 2007.

Comcast's Bowling said that merely improving the network won't eliminate the need to throttle back some kinds of traffic. He said peer-to-peer programs like BitTorrent tend to use more bandwidth as it becomes available, so network clutter doesn't get better with more capacity. "You can't outrun this problem by building more bandwidth," he said.

The organizer of a federal hearing Monday at Harvard Law School on Comcast's treatment of subscriber Internet traffic said yesterday that "seat-warmers" hired by the company prevented other people from attending.

Comcast acknowledged that it hired an unspecified number of people to fill seats, but said those people gave up their spots when Comcast employees arrived to take their places.

Catherine Bracy, administrative manager of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, disputed that assertion, saying most of the three dozen seat-warmers who arrived hours before the Federal Communications Commission hearing remained during the event's opening hours, as many other people were turned away.

"No employees came in to take those seats when the event started," Bracy said.

The hearing was held in response to complaints to the FCC that Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, hampered file-sharing traffic on its Internet service. The company has said that its traffic management practices are necessary to keep other Internet traffic flowing smoothly.

Comcast said it hired seat-holders only after the advocacy group Free Press urged its backers to attend. "For the past week, the Free Press has engaged in a much more extensive campaign to lobby people to attend the hearing on its behalf," the company said in a written statement.

A Comcast
spokeswoman declined to comment yesterday on Bracy's statements

US Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who attended the hearing, favors Net neutrality, but said Comcast may have to manage its data traffic because of the way the company designed its network. The real problem, said Markey, is a lack of competition.

In most communities there are no more than two broadband providers - the cable TV company and the phone company. These companies have already attached wires to all local homes. A would-be rival would have to spend millions building wired networks of their own - a massive barrier to competition.

Markey favors an "unbundling" policy, in which the federal government would require cable and phone companies to sell wholesale access to the lines going into consumers' homes. This would let many companies get into the Internet access business without having to string their own wires.

In an unbundled world, said Markey, Net neutrality will take care of itself. Companies that discriminate against BitTorrent traffic would lose business to those that didn't. "Competition is a proxy for regulation," he said.

Markey acknowledged that Congress might not embrace his idea. But he said the only alternative is a Net neutrality law that could saddle Internet access providers with burdensome regulations. "If unbundling isn't possible," said Markey, "then Net neutrality is going to be the rule of the road."

Privacy question on cyber security plan

Congress worries that .gov monitoring will spy on AmericansHouse, lawmakers yesterday raised concerns about the privacy implications of a Bush administration effort to secure federal computer networks from hackers and foreign adversaries, as new details emerged about the largely classified program.
Einstein, which DHS calls an "early warning system" for cyber-incidents, is described in a Homeland Security document from September 2004 as "an automated process for collecting, correlating, analyzing, and sharing computer security information across the federal civilian government." It's still only in place at 15 federal agencies, but Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff requesting $293.5 million from Congress in next year's budget to roll it out government-wide.

The round-the-clock system captures traffic flow data, which currently includes source and destination IP addresses and ports, Internet Control Message Protocol data, and the length of data packets. According to an internal 2004 privacy impact assessment (PDF), "the program is not intended to collect information that will be retrieved by name or personal identifier." Members of the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team, which coordinates federal responses to cyber attacks, analyze the downloaded records once per day in hopes of detecting worms and other "anomalous activity," pinpointing trends, and advising agencies on how best to configure their systems.

At a hearing convened here Thursday by the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, politicians directed pointed questions to Department of Homeland Security officials about their plans to expand an existing "intrusion detection" system known as Einstein. Among other things, the system will monitor visits from Americans--and foreigners--visiting .gov Web sites.

The unclassified portions of the project, known as the "cyber initiative," focus on drastically reducing the number of connections between federal agency networks and the Internet, and more closely monitoring those networks for malicious activity. Slightly more than half of all agencies have deployed the Department of Homeland Security's program.

But administration officials have not said how far monitoring would go, and whether oversight would extend to networks operated by state, local, and private sector entities, including government defense contractors.

A more real-time scrutiny of federal data flows is necessary because "our adversaries are very adept at hiding their attacks in normal everyday traffic," DHS Undersecretary Robert Jamison told the House Homeland Security Committee yesterday. He added that DHS is developing a privacy impact assessment on the new capabilities, which will be open to public review upon completion.

Some Democrats on the oversight panel were not assuaged by the administration's testimony. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.), said he remained concerned about the program's impact on the privacy of his constituents. "It looks a little like the fox is guarding the hen house," he said.

But Jim Lewis, director of the technology arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, called the privacy concerns premature and overblown.

"There's a big difference between intercepting and reading e-mail and reacting to suspicious traffic going across your network," said Lewis, whose employer is working with Congress and the private sector on a set of cyber security policy recommendations for the next president.

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