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Reader Objection: The PSTN is Better than Wireless or VoIP

Last week I posted on a recommendation by the Technical Advisory Council (TAC) to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) that the FCC set a date certain for the sunset of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). The discussion has been great: over 300 comments on slashdot; many more on gigaom, dslreports, fractals of change, and other sites. And lots of good issues raised; some of which I'll discuss in this and future posts.

Note: Although I am a member of the Critical Transitions workgroup of the TAC which made the recommendation, I speak for myself and no one else on this blog.

A common thread in many comments is the claim that the PSTN is better than any existing alternatives for voice communications including wireless and VoIP. Reader Scott wrote:

"Before even considering abandonment of the copper-based PSTN infrastructure, the reliability and quality issue with the alternatives needs to be addressed.   Both cellular and VOIP systems require electrical power at both the transmitting and receiving end.  When this fails, the service also fails.   By contrast, the PSTN is designed so that the system is powered by CO equipment, which tends to be massively redundant.  If the electrical grid fails, the PSTN should stay up for weeks, without requiring anything on the customer side.  The same cannot be said about today's alternatives.

"Also, voice quality is a huge issue.  Both cellular and VOIP systems introduce latency and compression, neither of which is desirable.  It is just said that my Western Electric 302 desk set from 1938 has better sound quality than a modern cellular telephone or VOIP telephone.   Also, home-type VOIP services tend to not support QoS [nb "quality of service"] routing, and performance can degrade based upon network traffic…

"Until these issues are addressed, discussion of the demise of the PSTN is premature…"

Scott's points aren't wrong. They are selling points for the PSTN. But the public isn't buying these selling points; customers are abandoning the PSTN and cancelling their landline POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) at an incredible rate despite the fact that Scott and others think that the PSTN is superior to the alternatives. Below from a twice annual huge telephone survey by the Centers for Disease Control:

"Preliminary results from the July–December 2010 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) indicate that the number of American homes with only wireless telephones continues to grow. Three of every ten American homes (29.7%) had only wireless telephones (also known as cellular telephones, cell phones, or mobile phones) during the last half of 2010—an increase of 3.1 percentage points since the first half of 2010. In addition, nearly one of every six American homes (15.7%) received all or almost all calls on wireless telephones despite having a landline. This report presents the most up-to-date estimates available from the federal government concerning the size and characteristics of these populations."

[BTW, in last week's post I ran a graph from this study which predicted that, by 2018, only 6% of residential landlines would be PSTN. Readers questioned the methodology of the study and I had carelessly omitted a link. Details on methodology and results are at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/earlyrelease/wireless201106.htm.]

Note that the NHIS survey is only about families abandoning landlines completely for a wireless alternative. They count VoIP lines as landlines, which they are although they are not part of the PSTN. The best estimate I can find of residential VoIP line penetration, including those VoIP services provided by cable companies, is from the FCC. They estimate that, at the end of 2008 (latest data they have), 20% of landlines were VoIP rather than PSTN (they don't count services like Skype but do count Vonage). The percentage has certainly gone up with the success of the cable companies in selling this service; one reputable source estimates that the cable companies alone serve 20 million subscribers with VoIP; Vonage advertises having 2.4 million subscribers (some not in the US). On the other hand, we know that some homes (mine, for example, for just a little while longer) have both VoIP and PSTN landlines. However, if 20% of the 70% of households with landlines actually have only VoIP lines, then PSTN penetration is already down to 56% - and falling. Note that a household with both a PSTN line and a VoIP line (mine for example, again) may be using the VoIP line for all calling and only have the PSTN line so that a home security system can continue to function; this means no toll revenue for the legacy phone company. Home security systems, however, now communicate both over IP networks and the cellular network, so even this need for PSTN is fading.

Back to Scott's points about quality: voice quality on the PSTN has been better than both VoIP and cellular. People have chosen price and mobility over quality; but we won't have to make that tradeoff much longer. New cellphones will support high definition voice – much better than what is available on the PSTN because they are not stuck with the bandwidth limitations which the PSTN coped with so well for so long. VoIP also can support high def voice when it doesn't have to interconnect with the low def PSTN. Have you noticed how good the audio is on a Skype-to-Skype call? That's only the beginning. I can't think of anything that would be better for E911 service than higher definition voice – less confusion between "got into the shed" and "shot in the head"!

The cost of running the copper-based PSTN is largely a function of route miles upon which trees can fall and across which strong winds blow. The revenue available to support the PSTN is dependent on the number of subscribers and the amount of calling they do. In rural areas the PSTN has long been subsidized by both the Universal Service Fund (USF) and a series of indirect subsidies. As people abandon the PSTN and email and text more and talk less, the subsidy required per subscriber goes up. Even if some users like Scott would prefer to keep their PSTN service, we all need to ask how long we will subsidize this once-great but now antiquated service and how much subsidy per user we will pay. People who have chosen not to use the PSTN anymore – regardless of its merits – shouldn't have to pay to subsidize those who do want to use it.

The decision of whether or not the PSTN should live on has already been made by the marketplace responding to better features, mobility needs, and the lower costs of VoIP networks. We need to recognize PSTN's demise and plan accordingly to make sure everyone has an alternative and to understand all the consequences of the end of this venerable network. I believe the best way – perhaps the only way – to have this discussion is set a date certain for the end of government support for the PSTN and government mandates that PSTN services be provided and work backwards from there.

Related posts:

TAC to FCC: Set a Date Certain for the End of the PSTN

The Ugly End of the Phone Network

Planning for the Ugly End of the Phone Network

States Should Deregulate ALL Phone Services – Not Regulate New Ones

Whom Do We Regulate when the Phone Monopolies Are Gone?

Whom Do We Regulate when the Phone Monopolies Are Gone? – Universal Access

Packing My Droid for Travel

My Verizon Droid isn't going to be able to communicate with cell towers in Europe; it uses CDMA technology and Europe is all GSM. But I've gotten dependent on the droid for lots of things including navigation. In most cases, there's an app for that - even two or three apps.

Let's start with navigation. My droid is now my GPS; its screen is plenty big enough. But it navigates using Google maps, which it downloads on the fly over my data connection to Verizon Wireless (VZW). Not going to have that connection in Europe. Googled "droid download maps", quickly found a few solutions, and downloaded a couple of them for good measure.

MapDroyd is free including a very good selection of international maps which I can download and save on my droid now while I'm still online. I need Sicily and they've got that. The trouble with MapDroyd is that it doesn't do turn-by-turn directions, say they plan to a future plus version which they'll probably charge for. Still, it could be a help so it's now installed on the droid.

CoPilot Live for the Android does do turn-by-turn and has downloadable apps. Its maps are expensive, though; the all Europe package is over $100 and'll take up a lot of space on my phone. There are supposed to be country-specific maps which are smaller and presumably cheaper; but it's not clear how to select them from the droid marketplace. I asked CoPilot Live tech support via email but haven't got anything but a robo-acknowledgement yet.

Don't know whether it counts as navigation but I downloaded Google's free Sky Mapfor good measure in case I find myself in a starship.

Calling over WiFi should be a good thing even when I can't connect to VZW (or maybe even when I can). The Skype application for droid is a disappointment. It does connect over WiFi in the US; but, if the call is domestic, Verizon charges you for it. You do save money if your calling another Skype user or if you're making an international call to a regular phone in which case you pay Skype and not VZW rates. Apparently, it won't call over WiFi outside the US so useless for calling home, which is exactly what I want to be able to do.

Fring looks like it may be the call-home answer. The app is free and can even make video calls fring-to-fring and supports free calls to SIP users. But not all my friends are SIPing nerds (if you don't know what SIP is, don't worry). FringOut supports calling ordinary phone numbers at a low cents per minute (one cent to the US, 1.7 cents to Italy); these are rates to landlines, though; it takes too much searching on the Fring site to find that mobile rates are much higher to countries outside North America where there is usually a mobile surcharge. I have an old phone that'll I get an Italian SIM for to make calling and texting locally cheaper.

Using WiFi instead of VZW. Wanted to make sure I will be able to use fring and send and receive email when I have a WiFi connection but am traveling out of range of VZW. Enabling WiFi on the droid was easy and logical. It found my home network right away and linked to it and through it with no trouble. Hopefully will do as well with networks with different security. It's not obvious whether your WiFi or VZW connection is being used when you have both, but I needed to know for testing purposes. Good trick is to go into airline mode which disables VZW, WiFi, and Bluetooth, then selectively re-enable WiFi. Fring and email and browsing DO work in this configuration. Phew. Consensus of the droid fora is that WiFi is used by most apps (but not Skype outside the US) whenever it's available, so enabling at home helps save you from going over the 5 gig "unlimited" limit on your droid.

Findle app. Came with my droid; enabled it by giving my Amazon account info. Downloaded a book I've been reading on Kindle. Opened right to the page I was reading on the Kindle. Cool!

Plans B and C. I will be taking my laptop which has built in WiFi and GPS so can use both of those; and I have a Skype account on that. Have an Ethernet cable, of course. Also have a couple of USB cellular modems I've accumulated into which I ought to be able to put SIMs to get prepaid cellular data in Italy. Have my real Kindle – the international edition. And Mary has her iPhone which does work in Europe (because at&t uses GSM) although at an outrageous price. I'll let you know how much I can rely on droid plan A.

Related posts:

Droid, Gmail, gSyncit, iPhone, Outlook, Mary and Me

Navigating on My Droid

Swyping from my Droid – The Supplement

This post was swyped on my droid

Droid Setup – Day 1 of My Re-Retirement

Ten Telecom Tsunamis

The telecom industry five years from now will be unrecognizable. The creative destruction of the Internet broadly writ will be even greater than it has been in the last decade. The major telcos, the major television networks, and the major cablecos – if they still exist at all – will have very different revenue models than they have today. That's the good scenario. In the bad scenario the old business models are bailed out or saved by regulation to the detriment of consumers and society in general.

Here's a list of ten major drivers of change:

Universality

The driver of all drivers will be universal very broadband Internet access. Five years from now we'll all (except for those who choose to live off the net) have a minimum of 25megabit per second download speed (and that'll be the low end) when we're standing still. We'll be connected – perhaps at a slightly lower rate – when we're moving around, especially in our cars but also in planes and trains and on foot. That means that the next generation of communication services whether they be voice, entertainment, power management, information, health or something else can and will all be built assuming this universal connectivity. See here for why government should help accomplish universality sooner rather than later.

End of the Billable Minute

We won't pay for voice calls by the minutes any more than we pay for email by the word. This trend is already well underway, of course, with flat-fee VoIP based services, "free" VoIP-VoIP calls, and unlimited minute plans; but last mile monopolies have managed to keep minutes billable on many international and most mobile calls. Universal IP connectivity for both residential and mobile users will complete the bypass of these last mile bottlenecks. There'll be no incremental charges for voice, just monthly connectivity plans for bits of any sort. Gory details on why we still have billable minutes are here.

End of Copper POTs

The recession is accelerating the abandonment of landline phone service currently running at better than 10% per year. Without a major breakthrough (which could happen), copper-based DSL won't be good enough for the bandwidths we'll all need in a year or two. Line loss along with displacement of voice calls to VoIP (see above) will shrink revenue earned by the copper network, which has served us long and well, so that the carriers can no longer afford to maintain it even though it will still have many users left. That may be a mess. More here.

End of the Channel

The channel is a left over concept from the days of over-the-air TV. It's convenient for marketing reasons but not technically necessary for cable and satellite companies to deliver a set of channels; they could offer single shows or series ala carte. Today they choose not to except for events they can get a good premium for – pay-per-view. But The Internet is essentially ala carte and the Internet will deliver our entertainment, business model tbd. There may be bundles of content available both to facilitate choice and for economic reasons but children will ask "Daddy, what's a channel?" It's likely that the cablecos will convert most of their bandwidth to support generic very high speed Internet access instead of carving it up for channels.

End of Over-The-Air TV

As we know from the recent flap over the now-postponed switch to digital TV, there are people who still watch TV over the air. But the number keeps shrinking and, as more and more of that same content is available on the Internet and more and more people have sufficient connectivity (see above) to receive that content from the Internet, the economics of over-the-air TV will become prohibitive even though the broadcasters don't have to pay for the spectrum they use. It's not that the local stations'll disappear (at least I don't think they will); they just won't have antennas attached to them. The stations may be able to get a boost by subleasing the spectrum they used to use for over-the-air for generic Internet access. We'll probably end up paying people $40 each for boxes to attach their old tv sets to the Internet.

Open Spectrum

After a rocky start, the white space experiment which the FCC decreed this year will be an enormous success. This open spectrum will be extremely valuable both for fixed and mobile Internet connectivity. More open spectrum will be needed and will become available as TV goes off the air (see above). Why open spectrum is so important is here.

Bandwidth Demand

The price of providing bandwidth either over the air or through a fiber goes down roughly with Moore's law. Every year and a half the amount of bandwidth that can be provided at a given cost doubles. This trend'll continue as we all demand more bandwidth partly in order to receive all the entertainment we used to get from dedicated networks and partly for new applications. Today's five meg connections will soon be as useless as yesterday's dialup as new bandwidth-hungry Internet uses are invented and become essential and as websites are built on the assumption of higher and higher bandwidth availability. See here for more on the bandwidth required to receive "television".

Online GPSes

It'll be no more than a couple of years until every car-mounted GPS is online whenever the car is turned on. We'll get and contribute automatically to crowd-based weather and traffic reports. We'll know how long the lines are at a local attraction before we get off the Interstate – and we'll buy our tickets before we get there. The billboards will literally be inside the car. This post is about an early GPS with connectivity.

Latency Intolerance

Latency is the time between when we send something on the Internet and the time when we receive a response. Interactive voice demands low latency; so do modern web pages which build themselves on your screen through a series of interactions. High altitude (geostationary) satellites cannot provide low latency because of speed-of-light limitations so they will not be a significant provider of Internet connectivity. Local Internet providers also have routing problems to and from the Internet backbone which contribute to latency. Some measure of expected latency'll become part of the marketing description of an Internet connectivity service. More on latency and satellite here.

Smart Grid

Electricity will begin to replace imported oil and gas for home heating and transportation and some other applications during the next five years. Our total electric consumption will go up. But the fossil fuel required to create that electricity will go down as the demand for electricity goes up. A smart grid which lets us better use baseline power from hydro, nuclear, wind, and solar will accomplish that near miracle. See The Smart Grid Should be Stupid.

An Innovator’s Dilemma – License or Manufacture?

Dash Express, the GPS with GPRS communication for automatic pooling of real-time traffic reports and a truly open application API, is one of the coolest products I've ever owned; it clearly points the way to not only the future of not getting lost but also the next stage of mobile communication and crowd-sourced data. Dash Navigation, the company behind it, recently laid off 65% of its workforce, according to Eric Shonfeld on TechCrunch, and has had to make radical and perhaps fatal alterations to its business plan.

Dash Navigation invented a radical mating of wireless and GPS technology. Existing GPSes like those from Garmin are closed systems, so Dash to built and distributed its own hardware to provider consumers a way to buy its clever technology. They made their platform open so that outside developers could add value to this cool device. They raised a significant amount of venture capital from first tier VC firms Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia. They got excellent product reviews.

But now they're in trouble. They've announced that they will no longer be a manufacturer (although you can still buy the device as I did); they will concentrate on licensing to GPS manufacturers, mobile phone providers, PDA makers etc. in order to get wider distribution. They haven't announced any licensing deals since the press release with their change of approach – although that was only a month ago. They're not doing any hiring according to their website, not surprising given the layoff they just had. They are still supporting their product as I can testify from a user POV.

Licensing is unfortunately NOT a good strategy for innovation. The licensees usually won't budget enough for the consumer education needed to sell innovation; they don't live or die by your success; they may just be covering a bet. They don't change their hardware to fit your software. You as the licensor don't have retail margins to support retail advertising since those margins go the builders and distributors of the retail product.

On the other hand, manufacturing and getting good distribution for a manufactured product is incredibly expensive and hit or miss. You run the risk of just doing enough to show fast followers how to add your features to their hardware. They don't even have to be as good as you if they have better distribution.

This is the innovator's dilemma and there's no good answer except lots of luck or lots and lots of capital. In a great economy, there's a flood of innovation and it's easy to get money but hard to get attention. In a poor economy, money is hard to come by; your VCs suddenly remember the old adage about throwing good money after bad and say they hear their mothers calling if you happen to corner them in a corridor.

The Apple Macintosh wouldn't have worked as licensed software for the PCs of its day. It needed hardware designed for its strengths; it needed large margins to support a large ad budget and initially short production runs (compared to DOS machines). Steve Jobs decided to tightly bundle the hardware and software and they've never been teased apart since. When things are going well for Apple, this is considered brilliant strategy. When things weren't going well, everyone knew this was a mistake; he should've licensed it. Now Apple has its own capital and can continue with integrated hardware and software innovation like the iPod and the iPhone. The model works when you're rich and brilliant.

Tivo was an incredibly innovative product. I still haven't seen a competitor eight years later which is even as good as the first Tivo device. Tivo has gone back and forth at least once between a manufacturing and a licensing model. It can't compete with the distribution advantage of the networks. Somehow it survives but doesn't really prosper (disclosure: I own a small amount of Tivo stock even though I don't currently own the device because the features I want don't work with DirecTV).

The Israeli company VocalTec was THE early innovator in VoIP (when VoIP was still in the carrier network and not in the home or office). Their engineering skill was in VoIP software development. They felt, probably correctly, that they had to sell VoIP devices to the carrier market to get the margins they needed and to deliver a "turnkey" solution.  But once Cisco and other became interested in delivering their own boxes, there was no longer a way for VocalTec to compete. Should they have licensed from the beginning? Easy to say with hindsight but they might well have not gotten traction nor sufficient margins nor been able to raise capital by going public if they had.

Back in the distant past my company Solutions, Inc. developed fax software for the Macintosh. We licensed it to fax modem manufacturers; we made a modest living but squandered most of it trying to promote our software (which was only available bundled) at trade shows. "You're selling what?" people would ask. At best, we made a dollar or so on each modem our licensees sold. Should we have had our own modem? Didn't have the capital. Eventually we licensed the software to Apple who used it as an upgrade to their own inferior software. Not a bad outcome but not what we were dreaming of.

I hope Dash Navigation finds a way through this innovator's dilemma. Their device IS going to shape the future. It'd be nice if they could benefit from it.

No More Landlines – Comm Forecast #1

By the end of President Obama's first term, there won't be any more copper landlines left in the country. One of the challenges facing the Federal Communications Commission and the new administration is how to deal with the fallout from the end of this venerable technology. It's gonna get ugly for some people – people who can't afford to do without communication – unless we're proactive about this problem.

Here's what's happening as you probably know. Young people don't bother with landlines (unless they live beyond cell coverage); they just use their mobile phones or Skype for voice communication. The slightly older set are buying cable's bundle of entertainment, Internet access, and VoIP. They cancel their landlines. People who have broadband access don't need the extra line they used to rent for their dial-up Internet access.

Verizon simply sold all of its copper plant in the three northern New England States to FairPoint. Verizon hadn't been investing in this plant and didn't want to put any more money in going forward. FairPoint, like Verizon and at&t, is losing access lines. In its latest financial results, it reported that access line equivalents are down 9.2% over the past year; total revenue is down as well.

In prime markets Verizon is replacing its copper infrastructure with fiber – one customer at a time; first are the most valuable customers but Verizon will move steadily down-market with its FiOS offer. FairPoint is making an impressive effort to add broadband access to areas where Verizon had not invested enough to make DSL work. FairPoint has also shown commendable willingness to move beyond traditional copper and use wireless to reach customers out of range of DSL. To compete with Cable's triple play, FairPoint has a loose bundle with DirecTV.

So look through the data points above to the trends. Revenue from POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) is simply disappearing. The copper network is generating increasing revenue from DSL BUT cable appears to be winning the bandwidth war for Internet access and snaring the voice customers as well. Barring a technical breakthrough in the use of the copper infrastructure (one should NEVER bar a technical breakthrough), there are going to be less and less copper access lines in use. In the long term, this isn't a problem because there are better ways to communicate than over fixed copper wire. But we live now, not in the long term.

There are several public policy problems stemming from the decline of the copper network:

  • At some point the carriers starting with some of the medium sized ones like FairPoint aren't going to be able to afford to maintain these networks with too few users. Network maintenance costs don't go down nearly as fast as the number of lines since you can't abandon any trunks as long as there are any customers attached to them. You still have to fix the lines when a tree falls on them even if most of the copper pairs in them are not in use. That's a big deal.
  • Revenue for the Universal Service Fund is still predicated on the good old days when everyone used a landline. Cellular customers get a break. VoIP is a grey area. The USF will run out of money at a time when it may be getting more expensive to provide basic service to people in rural areas. The small rural carriers survive because of subsidies from both the USF and termination charges (which disappear when people don't use their landline phones).
  • The USF mainly funds POTS. If POTS is kaput, there's nothing to subsidize.

All of these problems can be solved IFF they're recognized in time and if there's the political will-power to overcome the interests of those who have a stake in prolonging the declining status quo and postponing the future. For example, small rural telcos like the subsidies they get today and are not in as much immediate danger as their less-subsidized mid-sized brethren; they have substantial political clout with state and federal regulators. The duopoly of one large telco and one large cableco serving each area has resulted in some competition but not enough to stop Americans from having less bandwidth available at a higher price than most other developed countries. The duopoly has lobbyists to put it mildly.

The solution – at a high level – is breathtakingly simple. By the end of Obama's first term everyone in the US who has phone service today needs to have both an inexpensive mobile phone and broadband access (in some cases that'll be through the same device). The USF needs to shift its mission from subsidizing POTS to subsidizing connectivity. USF subsidies should go to consumers who are unable to pay for basic connectivity; not to telecommunications providers (rich people with homes in rural areas don't need an indirect subsidy; poor consumers should be able to choose which service provider to give their subsidy to). The revenue source for the USF either needs to move to the general tax base (good policy but bad politics) or at least be broadly-based across telecommunications services. There will need to be public investment in telecom infrastructure in rural areas but that may well be fundable by revenue bonds that get repaid from use rather than taxes; that's what we're planning in Vermont.

Do all that and the telecommunications future'll be bright. The cost of providing telecommunications is gonna come down very fast. More on that in an upcoming post.

Update: some smart people think my prediction about the death of the copper-POTS network is premature. Debate here.

Vonage Talk – Better Than I Thought

Vonage Talk can receive phone calls that are dialed to your home or business Vonage phone. Vonage Talk is a new "Alpha" service from Vonage which creates the ability to link PC client software to a Vonage account. This capability points the way – still a long way – to the end of outrageous cellular roaming costs.

Suppose you're in your hotel room somewhere on the other side of the world. Assuming you have a broadband connection (a good assumption because otherwise you would have had to leave the hotel room to get any work done), you fire up the Vonage Talk client on your PC. The Vonage Talk client is linked to whatever Vonage account you used to sign in. If the Vonage phone back home which belongs to that account rings, the Vonage client "rings" as well; it even gives you caller ID. If it's a call you want, you answer; if not, it goes to voice mail.

What's this "roaming" capability cost? Nothing! Same thing it costs you to make outgoing calls to many places using Vonage Talk wherever you are.

This is not the same as forwarding calls. When you do that, you have to pay for the outbound second leg of the call. Moreover, forwarding isn't practical to a hotel or office switchboard and you can't forward to an extension. But, if you are monitoring your home phone line on Vonage Talk, you can answer from a hotel room or borrowed office. Your privacy is maintained; the caller has no idea that you're not wherever your primary phone is.

BTW, this isn't the same as using Skype IN – it's better. Skype IN does allow people to reach you by calling a PSTN number but it's a special number only useful for Skype IN calls. Who wants to have yet one more number to give out?

Obviously this isn't as functional as getting calls on your mobile phone when you travel since you have to be connected somewhere with your PC on – could be a wifi hotspot – in order to make or receive calls. But there are two big advantages: you don't need to give anyone your mobile phone number in order to be reachable AND you eliminate potentially huge bills for cellular roaming – particularly if you're travelling internationally.

Blogged previously about Vonage Talk for outgoing call but mistakenly thought it wasn't useful for incoming. Hat tip to Dan Berninger for helping me get this straight.

Cordless or Wireless? Good Question

We don’t do spring here in Vermont so now it’s summer although there’s still plenty of snow gleaming in the mountains. Time for me to work outside (at least until we get our obligatory late season snowstorm).

My cordless phone is scratchy by the time I get out on the deck; it doesn’t like being that far from the base station. The WiFi isn’t great on the deck either.

I could move the base station for the cordless phone and install a repeater for the WiFi signal. Last year I used my antenna and high-power WiFi card to make WiFi work right outside. But that’s all a lot of trouble.

Instead I made my calls using my wireless (aka cellular) phone. And I put the EVDO USB modem in my computer and just used that for connectivity. Since I never use my 500 wireless minutes each month nor the 5 gigabytes per month included in my EVDO account, it doesn’t cost me anything incremental to be in my travel configuration while on the deck; and it’s a lot more convenient than making the house radios have good coverage outside.

So here’s the question: will there come a time when we don’t install our own little radios for voice and data at the end of the wires, cables, or fiber that comes into our houses? Will we just pick up the same signal from our carriers that we use when we’re traveling inside the house as well as on the deck and in the car?

Clearly WON’T happen unless the carriers lower the prices for cellular and EVDO and lift the volume limits. $99/month for unlimited talking on Verizon Wireless or AT&T is a lot more than $24.95 on Vonage which also includes reasonable rates on international calling. 5 gig would disappear pretty soon if I were doing my nightly over-the-net backups and watching MLB.com on EVDO. Moreover EVDO isn’t really fast enough for lots of web stuff.

The conventional wisdom is that eventually voice and data will come over a fiber into the house and then be distributed wirelessly thoughout the house and maybe the yard and that mobile needs will continue to be met by different technology at a higher price. Maybe the conventional wisdom is right but it’s always worth questioning.

I think there’s a strong probability that not just the last 100 feet but the whole last mile will be wireless in many places. Radio technology is advancing very quickly. There would be plenty of spectrum IFF (and it’s a big IFF) there were regulatory reform to allow use of whitespace and make much more spectrum open. As we (and our computers) spend more and more time connected, we’ll be more and more impatient with having to switch connectivity modes when we walk out the front door.

That would mean no communication wires, cables or fibers coming to most single family residences. That could also mean true competition in communication services just as cell phone service offers more choices, more competition, and more innovation than landline service does today. It’s hard to make a business case for duplicate networks to each house; much easier to make the case for competitive radios, even on the same towers.

Just a speculation.

The (un)Social Directory

I want to be in an (un)social directory. I want to be accessible to some people, want to be findable by most people, but want to keep complete control of who communicates with me by what method.

The (un)social directory is the inverse of the kind of directories we’ve been living with throughout our lives; that makes it hard to think about initially.

A traditional directory is a collection of information about other people which you own - your Outlook directory, your collection of business cards, a phonebook, the phonebook in your mobile phone. Each entry gives you one or more ways to reach those other people. The information is static. If it changes, you have to both know about the change and take the time to enter the change or the directory will be out of date.

When you give people information about yourself to put in their directories, you are implicitly granting them permission to access you with that information. Once someone knows your mobile number he knows it; you can’t revoke that. You can refuse to answer when you get a caller ID you aren’t interested in but you have to change the number to revoke the privilege of calling it. On the other hand, if you do make a change, you have to find a way to notify all the people whom you do want to be able to reach you that the information changed.

Prepare to invert.

You maintain one copy of your master contact information in the (un)social directory – all of the possible ways to contact you. Everyone else has a similar master contact page which is visible only to her. When two people meet and exchange (un)social contact info, what they are actually doing is exchanging permissions but NOT contact information. Permissions are always revocable. This needs an example.

We meet for the first time at a tradeshow. You decide that you want to allow me email access to you because you may want to buy what I’m selling. I want to allow you both email and phone access as well as IM because I’m very eager for you to buy what I have to sell. We both do something online or on our mobile phones (UI TBD) to grant each other these permissions. Note that we do NOT exchange actual email addresses, IM handles, or mobile numbers.

We now each have two entries in our personal directory. The contact entry I use to reach you has nothing but permissions in it and the address of your contact page (which I can’t see but can get connected to you through). The other entry is the permissions I granted you which are to a subset of the possible ways to reach me. I can enhance, change or revoke these at any time – like if you don’t buy anything but keep calling to tell me about your golf game.

If I change phone numbers or email addresses, it makes no difference to you because you didn’t know what they were in the first place. As long as the address of my contact page remains the same, you’ll be able to get to me. And vice versa.

When you want to call me, you click on my name (whatever name you gave me) and a connection is made through my contact page. There’s some smarts in the directory application so you get the best permitted connection given the media you want to use – real time voice in this case – and the media I’ve permitted you and am available through at the minute. Maybe you’d like to leave voice mail if you can’t get me in real time; maybe you want to IM or email me. You may want me to call you back and can give me temporary permission to do that (remember, you didn’t give me general permission to call). But, since you are leaving just a permission and not a call back number, you don’t have to worry that I’ll pester you forever just because you asked me to call once.

How we get to the nirvana of the (un)social directory is coming up. So is findability.

Posted on my professional interest in this at My New Gig.

Fellow FWD-er CEO Daniel Berninger has more to say about directories here.

Aswath of EnThinnai shares the vision but differs on the business path to implementation.

Japan’s Internet Access Satellite Is a Mistake

CNN reports that “Japan launched a rocket Saturday carrying a satellite that will test new technology that promises to deliver "super high-speed Internet" service to homes and businesses around the world… If the technology proves successful, subscribers with small dishes will connect to the Internet at speeds many times faster than what is now available over residential cable or DSL services… the Associated Press said the satellite would offer speeds of up to 1.2 gigabytes per second [nb. with a seventeen foot dish].”

Sounds good but it isn’t.

What neither the Associated Press nor CNN picked up is the altitude at which the satellite is intended to orbit, probably because they don’t understand why that’s important. Slashdot was a little more discerning, however: they picked up that it is intended to be geostationary (always appearing in the same spot in the sky so that antennae can be pointed at it). Physics (and the release from the Japanese AerospaceExploration Agency) tell us that a geostationary satellite must be 22, 000 miles above the earth. Other laws of physics say that radio signals are going to take more than a tenth of a second to get there and the same time to get back; the universe apparently doesn’t allow faster speeds.

Not only does that mean that these satellites won’t be good for interactive gaming (as Slashdot points out) and that they’ll be terrible for VoIP; they also won’t work well for web browsing. That matters! A modern web page is built in many interactions between your computer and the host of the website (much more detail here); the minimum time for each of those interactions is half a second because the signal has to go up and down to get to the server and up and down to get back to you. Those half a seconds don’t sound like much but they add up (this delay is called “latency”). If you use satellite, you know how slow page builds are and how may pages just break during the delay. Unfortunately fast data rates don’t help when latency is the problem.

The satellite’ll be good for email; it’s a good backup to oceanic fiber that seems to be getting cut lately. It will NOT do what the Japanese Agency’s press release says: “…even in some areas where major ground infrastructure for the Internet is difficult to establish, people can enjoy the same level of Internet service as that in urban areas.” Cable, DSL, and even terrestrial wireless measure latency in milliseconds (thousandths of a second); latency is very often MORE important than bandwidth in determining the quality of Internet experience. Anyone who thinks geostationary satellites are an acceptable way to bring broadband to rural areas doesn’t understand how the modern web works.

WiMAX vs. WiFi

In fact WiFi (technically standard 802.11) and WiMAX (802.16) don’t compete for broadband users or applications today. That’s partly because WiFi is widely deployed and WiMAX is still largely an unfulfilled promise and partly because the two protocols were designed for very different situations. However, if WiMAX is eventually widely deployed, there will be competition between them as last mile technologies.

Some people describe the difference between WiFi and WiMAX as analogous to the difference between a cordless phone and a mobile phone. Wifi, like a cordless phone, is primarily used to provide a connection within a limited area like a home or an office. WiMAX is used (or planned to be used) to provide broadband connectivity from some central location to most locations inside or outside within its service radius as well as to people passing through in cars. Just like mobile phone service, there are likely to be WiMAX dead spots within buildings.

From a techie POV, the analogy is apt at another level: WiFi, like cordless phones, operates in unlicensed spectrum (in fact cordless phones and WiFi can interfere with each other in the pitiful swatch of spectrum that’s been allocated to them). There are some implementations of WiMAX for unlicensed spectrum but most WiMAX development has been done on radios which operate on frequencies whose use requires a license.

Some more subversive types (they’re subversive so I can’t link to them) say that WiMAX is what you get when bellheads (not a nice term) try to reinvent WiFi the way they’d like it to be. It’s true that WiMAX is much more a command and control protocol than WiFi. Oversimplified, in a WiFi environment every device within reach of an access point shouts for attention whenever it’s got something to transmit. In that chaos, some signals tromp on other signals; the more powerful devices and those closer to the access point tend to get more than their share of airtime like the obnoxious kid who always has his hand up in the front of the class. In WiMAX devices contend for initial attention but then are assigned times when they may ask to speak. The protocol allows the operator more control over the quality of service provided – bellheads like control.

But it’s not clear that more control means better service than contentious chaos (I’m talking about technology but the same may apply to economies or bodies politic). The Internet and its routing algorithms are chaotic; the routers just throw away packets if they get to busy to handle them. Bellheads (and even smart people like Bob Metcalfe) were sure that design or lack thereof wouldn’t scale. They were wrong.

Same people said that voice would never work over the Internet – there’s no guarantee of quality, you see. They were wrong although it’s taken awhile to prove it. Now HD voice is available on the Internet but NOT on the traditional phone network (although it could be).

Lovers of an orderly environment and those who like to keep order were absolutely sure that WiFi couldn’t work once it became popular. Not only is it chaotic; it also operates in the uncontrolled environment of unlicensed frequencies along with cordless phones, bluetooth headsets, walkie-talkies and the occasional leaky microwave oven. But somehow it’s become near indispensable even in places where a city block full of access points contend for the scarce frequencies.

Net: I’m not convinced that WiMAX won’t suffer from its own orderliness. Did you ever fume leaving an event when an amateur cop (or a professional one) managed traffic into an endless snarl? Fact is cars at low speed usually merge better without help than otherwise. Turns out that control comes at the expense of wasted capacity. The reason that the Internet or WiFi radios can work is that the computing power necessary to deal with chaos from the edge of the network is far cheaper and less subject to disruption or misallocation than the computing power (and communication) for central command and control.

WiMAX may be too well-controlled for its own good. Moreover, if it is used only in regulated spectrum where most frequencies are idle most of the time AND licenses for the frequencies have to be purchased, it will be even less efficient than if it could contend for unlicensed spectrum.

By the way, WiFi CAN operate at distances as great as WiMAX but there are two reasons why it doesn’t. One reason is that radios operating in the unlicensed frequencies are not allowed to be as powerful as those operated with licenses; less power means less distance. These regulations are based on the dated assumption that devices can’t regulate themselves – but the assumption MAY be correct over great enough distances. The second reason why WiFi access points don’t serve as wide an area as WiMAX access points are planned to do is the engineering belief that the problem of everybody shouting at once, even if it’s surmountable in a classroom, would be catastrophic in a larger arena. Maybe.

New licensed spectrum is being made available for WiMAX and other technologies NOT including WiFi - for example, the valuable 700MHz frequencies currently used by analog over the air TV. WiMAX could have a good run because it is allowed to operate in that efficient spectrum while WiFi will eventually run out of the pitifully little spectrum that’s been allocated to it. That’s policy and politics and not engineering but could still be a reason for WiMAX success.

Why WiMAX? is about the advantages of that technology.

Internet 2.0 is Open Spectrum is an argument against licensed spectrum.

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