NetAction Notes

Published by NetAction Issue No. 95 Sept. 16, 2003
Repost where appropriate. See copyright information at end of message.


Turning to Tech Support
Help for Human Rights Groups
FCC Ruling Kills Potential for Cheaper, Faster DSL
More on Microsoft Discounts
About NetAction Notes

Turning to Tech Support

CNN reported last month that a Consumer Reports magazine survey found that about a third of the 8 million computer users who turn to software company tech support each year don't get the help they need. The CNN report also noted that a separate survey by the National Institute of Standards and Technology estimates that software glitches cost the U.S. economy about $60 billion annually. Combine these factors with an increase in software complexity and a decrease in tech support services and you've got some seriously frustrated computer users -- both at home and in the office.

Nonprofit organizations are certainly not immune to these problems. Software glitches can be especially troubling in small organizations where training budgets may be limited, staff turnover may be high, and in-house tech support may not be an option. So who will you turn to for tech support when your database crashes just as you're about to mail five thousand invitations to your annual fundraising event?

No single solution is right for every organization, of course, and there will be advantages and disadvantages to every option. In this issue of NetAction Notes, we offer some thoughts about the factors you might consider when deciding how your organization can best meet its tech support needs. First, let's look at some of the options.

In most cases, the key factors that will determine your available options are your organization's operating budget and the staff's level of technical expertise. An organization with a large number of employees may prefer to have someone on staff to provide tech support. This might be someone's full time job in a really large organization; or it could be one of several responsibilities assigned to an individual. On the other hand, even a large organization may find there is little demand for in-house tech support if staff have sufficient access to software skills training programs.

Smaller organizations often prefer to use an outside consultant for tech support. In many cases the consultant will primarily be responsible for setting up and maintaining the office network. Troubleshooting software problems may or may not be included.

There are pros and cons with either option. Having in-house tech support means someone is always available in an emergency -- until that individual leaves and you lose their institutional knowledge.

An outside consultant may bring consistency, but staff with limited tech skills may rely so heavily on a consultant that it ultimately winds up costing more than an additional staff salary. A consultant with the expertise to maintain your office network may not have the expertise to fix your broken database. Another thing to consider is that some consultants supply only proprietary software applications, which lock you into their ongoing tech support services.

Another option for nonprofit organizations is volunteer tech support. This has the obvious advantage of being free, but in most cases a volunteer won't be available to troubleshoot a software problem on short notice. Moreover, while volunteers may offer substantial expertise, it may not be the expertise your organization needs. For example, a volunteer who has only worked with Windows won't be much help if your office computers are all Macs.

For more information on this topic, see TechSoup's "Who Do You Need: Volunteer, Consultant or Staff".

If you're looking for a consultant, see TechSoup's list of technical assistance providers.

Help for Human Rights Groups

There's no question that the Internet is helping activists call attention to human rights violations, but barriers still exist. One significant barrier is encryption software, which even the experts acknowledge is far from user-friendly. But unencrypted email is easily intercepted, and many human rights groups can't risk sending information if there's a chance it will fall into the wrong hands.

The San Francisco-based CryptoRights Foundation wants to make it easier for human rights groups to get the word out about violations of human rights by developing and distributing hardware to simplify the use of encryption. The organization eventually wants to develop "wearable" hardware that human rights workers can use to record and report abuses. At present, they are beta-testing a combined hardware and software technology called HighFire, which was designed to improve the security of sensitive information collected by human rights workers around the world.

As part of their continuing research, they are asking human rights groups to complete a survey that will help them determine what technologies would be most helpful to the human rights community. (You'll need to be patient as the page loads slowly even with a broadband connection.)

Foundation chairman Dave Del Torto said the results of the survey and feedback from the HighFire beta testing will enable them to improve the technologies they make available to human rights groups.

"Philosophically, security systems are always a work in progress: they're never 'finished.' As researchers, we take very seriously the idea that someone may someday risk her safety based on how trustable and usable we've made a system like HighFire. We plan to be in a beta test period until CRF's team, our NGO testers and our peer reviewers in the cryptography community have had sufficient time to judge the system's reliability. We think HighFire will be very useful even while everyone's testing it. Already, in our early alpha tests, it's better than nearly anything being used now. But we have no intention of rushing any half-baked safety systems out to the NGO community. Better safe than sorry," said Del Torto.

FCC Ruling Kills Potential for Cheaper, Faster DSL

Last last month the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finally issued its written order on the Triennial Review of telecommunications, indicating which elements of the U.S. phone network will be open to competition. As expected, the order expands the potential for competition to develop in the provision of basic phone services, but slams the door shut on further competition in the deployment of high-speed Internet service over phone lines.

The order ensures that Bell operating companies like SBC Communications and Verizon will continue to dominate the increasingly lucrative broadband Internet service market, but throws a bone to competition by retaining the requirement that the Bells share their local phone network with competitors.

Not content with the lion's share of the pie, the Bells promptly filed lawsuits to prevent the order from being implemented. Then Covad petitioned the Court to determine whether the FCC's order was arbitrary and capricious. nMore lawsuits are likely -- including some from the competitor and consumer interests who have a legitimate reason to complain.

To be fair to the FCC, the order is a potential win for local phone customers. But customers will only benefit if competition develops, and the existing level of competition is woefully inadequate. Much depends on the whims of state regulators since this particular battle will be shifting from the FCC to the individual state regulatory commissions.

For anyone concerned about the continued deployment of broadband, however, the order is nothing short of a disaster. It effectively deregulates broadband services under the control of the Bell monopolies. Although existing competitive broadband providers like Covad will be "grandfathered" under the order, they only account for about 10% of the available lines. That leaves the Bell monopolies in control of 90% of the lines.

If the FCC's order is enforced, DSL downloads won't be getting any faster, and the price of service won't be getting any cheaper.

More on Microsoft Discounts

Our comment in the last issue of NetAction Notes regarding the new limits that Microsoft has placed on software available through DiscounTech elicited a response from Tony Knox, the Customer Services Manager at DiscounTech.

Although nonprofits can only order Microsoft products from DiscounTech once every two years, Tony pointed out that nonprofit organizations may also qualify for price breaks on Microsoft products through the company's Open Charity License program.

About NetAction Notes

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