GT Spectrum

Reports from the IT horizon.

by / July 1, 2002
Avoiding Thin Ice

The idea of driving a truck across a frozen expanse of water may sound a little iffy to people living in warmer climates. But ice bridges, which traverse rivers and lakes, and ice roads, which travel along frozen rivers, are common transportation links in the northern regions of Canada, Alaska, Europe and Russia. In Canada's far north, ice roads and bridges are often the only economical way to get materials to and from remote towns and mining operations.

Canada's Government of the North West Territories and contractors actually build and maintain ice bridges and roads throughout the winter season until the thaw comes in April, said Peter Dyck, fleet facilities officer of the Department of Highways.

The bridges are built in layers, he said, and the Department of Highways and contractors use a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) system to track the thickness of the ice. The GPR system is pulled behind a snowmobile or other small vehicle.

The system combines GPR data with GPS data so government officials can get a precise correlation between ice depth and physical location of the bridge. The data also can be fed into a GIS software package to create color-coded maps that display weak spots.

Road repair and maintenance crews use the maps to target areas that need attention, Dyck said, and officials scan the ice for potentially fatal faults.

"There's a certain panic to move loads across these roads before we close them in mid-April. In previous years, we've had traffic jams as a result of people showing up as late as midnight on the last day," he said. The department estimates that more than 4,000 heavy loads crossed ice bridges between January and March last year.

Eyes on Emissions

For the past five years, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles' emission control program has monitored vehicle emissions in the Las Vegas metropolitan area under a mandate of the EPA.

Nevada has used remote-sensing technology -- roadside cameras and emissions-monitoring equipment -- to track the tailpipes of approximately 20,000 autos in the Las Vegas area, said Lloyd Nelson, program manager.

Every year, some public grumbling accompanies newspaper stories about the testing, Nelson said. But this year, the grumbling is decidedly louder, focusing on the roadside cameras.

In April, state Sen. Mark James, R-Las Vegas, told the Las Vegas Review Journal that using the roadside cameras could violate a state law banning the use of cameras for traffic enforcement -- a law that James co-authored. The law prohibits the use of roadside cameras for traffic enforcement unless the camera is held by a law enforcement officer or mounted on a law enforcement facility or vehicle.

But Nelson said the cameras are essential because the DMV needs to gather license plate numbers to get information on vehicles' year of manufacture.

"The remote sensing is being used to evaluate [our] emissions program's performance, general research, evaluating the fleet in the area [and] evaluating certain vehicles that are high emitters. That's the focus that the DMV has taken over the last five years," Nelson said.

James contends that using unmanned cameras to gather information that ultimately could result in a notification of suspended registration for failure to pass emissions tests is ultimately an enforcement action and doesn't comply with state law.

Counties Quake at Cable Revenue Shortfall

In March the Federal Communication Commission reclassified cable Internet connections as an information service instead of a cable service, and fallout from that ruling already is hitting Maryland counties.

Comcast Cable told several counties they would no longer receive cable-modem franchise fees from the company because the FCC decision means the company is no longer obligated to collect the money. Counties say that could cost them a sizable chunk of change. For example, Baltimore County, Md., officials said they could lose $830,000 next year if Comcast stops collecting cable-modem franchise fees.

"The definition we created [in the franchise agreement] was that the county would receive a percentage of the gross revenue derived, in essence, from the wire," said Kevin Kamenetz, an eight-year member of the Baltimore County Council and the lead negotiator on cable issues for the county. "Any sources of income that our local Comcast entity receives as gross revenue derived from the transmission over the county rights of way would be subject to our franchise fee."

Officials said the county told Comcast that its decision to cease collecting the fee is premature, given that the FCC's ruling isn't final and that if the FCC does reverse its decision, the county is due a refund of fees that haven't been paid.

Several counties, through the state's association of counties, will lobby the FCC to change its decision about the classification of cable Internet services.

"Congress has been pretty clear that they want to take any negotiating leverage from the local jurisdictions in the guise of free market competition," Kamenetz said. "Obviously, this may be a position that will be resolved in the courts or by Congress."

State Commission Addresses DSL Regulation

As broadband Internet connectivity becomes more commonplace in homes, public utilities' commissions could well play a larger role in regulating broadband providers.

The California Public Utilities Commission waded into the broadband fray in March, ruling that CPUC has jurisdiction over quality of service issues, marketing of broadband services and business practices of providers.

"State commissions are the place that people go to when they have complaints about the quality of their telephone service, and they don't differentiate DSL from their regular voice-grade telephone service," said Tom Long, adviser to CPUC President Loretta Lynch.

The decision stems from a formal complaint filled by smaller DSL providers against Pacific Bell, part of telecommunications giant SBC, about issues related to Pacific Bell's DSL service.

"The issue for us, that was raised by the motion to dismiss by SBC, was whether federal actions or federal law had preempted the ability and right of the state commission to address the claims," Long said. "The answer is no. ISPs have raised claims that come under state law. Nothing under federal law says that we're the wrong place to address those -- the claims related to service quality, discrimination of service."

SBC had argued that the FCC alone has jurisdiction over such issues because the services are provided under tariffs that the FCC oversees, and, based on that, states don't have regulatory authority over that service.

Long noted the decision is not final; a full administrative hearing before the commission is scheduled and a final ruling should come in about six months. He said approximately 15 states have delved into some form of regulation for DSL providers, and about seven states have reached similar conclusions to the CPUC's.

"As DSL is becoming a more important service around the country, commissions around the country are facing the same kinds of claims and cases," he said. "These issues are getting sorted out, and, in California, we're just starting to see formal complaints filed by parties."