802.11n update

There’s some FUD around 802.11n. A comment on this blog wonders how long it will be before it is ratified, and calls it a “pipe dream.”

So I was pleased to hear an aside from a Cisco executive in the webinar about the new Cisco Mobility vision. A participant asked Brett Galloway if delays in the ratification of 802.11n are holding back deployment. He responded:

We don’t see it. Technology adoption is a cycle. Late adopters are more conservative. Large numbers of 11n clients are shipping. The driver is Wi-Fi Alliance Draft N certification. There is comprehensive agreement around the ecosystem for interoperability testing using the WFA testbed. Cisco announced recently that it had shipped 50,000 11n access points.

The critical point here is that a final 802.11n specification is not needed for successful deployment. The main thing you want from a Wi-Fi device is that it is interoperable with all the others, and that’s what the Wi-Fi Alliance Draft N certification delivers – at least to the same extent that 11g devices are interoperable.

While 50,000 is a trivial number in the context of Wi-Fi access points, remember this is just enterprise-grade APs, and doesn’t include anything from Cisco’s Linksys division. When the litigation goes away and the final specification is published, all the access points out there are likely to be upgradable with a download. So go ahead and enjoy the benefits of 11n like so many other people are doing.

White Space update

The forthcoming transition to digital TV transmissions will free up about half the spectrum currently allocated to TV broadcasters. This freed-up spectrum was the subject of the FCC’s just-concluded 700MHz Auction, which yielded about $20 billion in license fees to the government. The fate of the other half of the TV spectrum, the part that will remain assigned to TV broadcasts after the digital transition, remains in contention.

This spectrum will be shared by licensed TV broadcast channels and wireless microphones, but even so much of it will remain mostly unused. These chunks of spectrum left idle by their licensees are called “White Spaces.” The advent of “spectrum sensing” radio technology means that it is now theoretically possible for transmitters to identify and use White Spaces without interfering with the licensed use of the spectrum.

The FCC has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and a First Report and Order to explore whether this is a good idea, and if so, how to handle it.

The potential users of the White Spaces have formed roughly two camps, those who see it best suited for fixed broadband access (similar to the first version of WiMAX), and those who see it as also suited for “personal/portable” applications (similar to Wi-Fi).

Google, along with Microsoft and some other computer industry companies, advocates the personal/portable use. The FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) is currently lab-testing some devices from Microsoft and others to see if their spectrum-sensing capabilities are adequate to address the concerns of the broadcast industry, which fears that personal/portable use will cause interference.

Google filed an ex-parte letter with the FCC on March 24th, weighing in on the White Spaces issue. The letter is well worth reading. It concedes that in the introductory phases it makes sense to supplement spectrum sensing with other technologies, like geo-location databases and beacons. The letter asserts that these additional measures render moot the current squabble over a malfunction in the devices in the first round of FCC testing, and that the real-world data gathered in this introductory phase would give the FCC confidence ultimately to repeal the supplemental measures, and perhaps to extend open spectrum-sensing uses to the entire radio spectrum, leading to a nirvana of effectively unlimited bandwidth for everybody.

The kicker is in the penultimate paragraph, where Google recycles an earlier proposal it made for the 700MHz spectrum auction, suggesting a real-time ongoing “dynamic auction” of bandwidth. Google now suggests applying this dynamic auction idea to the white spaces:

For each available spectrum band, the licensee could bestow the right to transmit an amount of power for a unit of time, with the total amount of power in any location being limited to a specified cap. This cap would be enforced by measurements made by the communications devices. For channel capacity efficiency reasons, bands should be allocated in as large chunks as possible. The airwaves auction would be managed via the Internet by a central clearinghouse.

Current expectations are for spectrum-sensing use of the whites spaces to be unlicensed (free, like Wi-Fi). Now Google appears to be proposing “sub-licensed” rather than unlicensed spectrum use. The word “auction” implies that this could be a revenue producer for TV broadcast licensees, who received their licenses free from the government. This is a very different situation than the original context of the dynamic auction proposal, which applied to spectrum for which licensees paid $20 billion. Depending how it is implemented, it could fulfill the telcos’ dream of directly charging content providers for bandwidth on a consumer’s Internet access link, a dream that Google has opposed in the network neutrality wars. Google may ultimately regret opening the door to this one, even though it presumably sees itself cashing in as the ideal candidate to operate the “central clearinghouse.”

Update April 10th: Interesting related posts from Michael Marcus and Sascha Meinrath.

FCC 700 MHz “Open Platform” Auction Completed

It took a while, and 261 rounds of bidding, but its over. Click here for the write-up from Wired.

The attractive thing about the 700 MHz spectrum that was freed up by the move to digital TV broadcasting is that transmissions at these frequencies pass through walls. The unusual thing about the “C Block” of this spectrum is that the FCC attached “open access” conditions to the license. This was at the behest of the computer industry, spearheaded by Google, who may even have made a bid on this block. But as the Wired story points out, Google had already won their victory with the imposition of the open access rules – winning the spectrum would have been more of a headache for them than losing it.

Don’t confuse the spectrum licensed in this auction with the White Spaces spectrum. The White Spaces spectrum is the spectrum that the TV broadcasters retained for their transition to digital transmissions in February 2009. The White Spaces issue is still unresolved by the FCC. The FCC is deliberating over whether to allow unlicensed use of the digital TV spectrum when it is not being used by a TV broadcast (hence “White Spaces.”) This use depends on effective functioning of “cognitive radio,” which lets transmitters sense by listening (and other means) when spectrum is available for use. If the FCC allows it, they still have to decide whether to allow only fixed broadband replacement like 802.22, or to allow “Personal and Portable” use as well.

Open wireless networks for America?

David Hattey, CEO of FirstHand Technologies points out in an opinion piece on CNET that US mobile network operators may be opening up their phones to third party applications. He cites two announcements from last November: Apple’s announcement of an SDK for the iPhone, and Verizon’s “Any Apps, Any device” announcement.

This point was echoed in the New York Times article on the 700MHz spectrum auction that I wrote about earlier today:

The new rules have already begun to reshape the rapidly emerging wireless broadband industry. It prompted Verizon and AT&T to change their policies and open their networks to new applications and devices, just as Google and its allies had hoped.

“The issue has melted away,” Mr. Martin said. “It is no longer as controversial, as the major providers have moved to open up their networks.”

Sauce for the gander

Qualcomm has a massive number of patents in cellular technology, including most (all?) of the fundamental CDMA patents. Qualcomm owns a substantial number of the patents used in your cellphone, and gleans enormous revenues from licensing them. This is as it should be. Inventors should be rewarded for their creativity. But Qualcomm is notorious for going one step further, claiming that its intellectual property is even more valuable than it actually is, and using its patent portfolio aggressively.

So Qualcomm’s competitors are undoubtedly chuckling over Qualcomm’s comeuppance this week at the hands of Broadcom.

I don’t know the details of this case; for all I know it may be another travesty like the NTP/RIM case, where RIM was forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to a patent troll with patents that the USPTO apparently found to be invalid. The huge difference here is that Broadcom doesn’t just own the patents that Qualcomm was found to be breaching, but unlike NTP Broadcom uses those patents in its own products that compete against Qualcomm’s.

White Spaces – why the resistance?

It’s an amazing idea. Radio signals at less than 1 GHz pass easily through buildings. TV broadcast signals are below 1 GHz so you can use an indoor antenna. Anywhere in the US about half the TV channels are idle, so why not use these empty channels (White Spaces) for wireless broadband Internet access? The FCC has been pushing this idea since 2004. The IEEE has a workgroup (802.22) hammering out the technical details, and some of the mightiest companies in the technosphere are banding together to make it happen.

Even the broadcasting industry sees the merit of this idea – in a letter to Senators Stevens and Inouye, David Donovan, the president of MSTV (the Association for Maximum Service Television) says:

Ensuring that the United States is a global leader in the provision of broadband services is a worthy goal. We believe this goal can be accomplished, especially in rural markets, without causing interference to new digital television receivers and converter boxes… Our desire is to find a solution that will bring broadband to underserved Americans while ensuring that consumers’ and broadcasters’ investments in the DTV transition are protected.

Did you spot the catch? The broadcasters are worried that unlicensed use of their spectrum will interfere with their broadcasts. The chief executives of Disney, News Corporation, NBC and CBS sent a letter to the FCC saying:

As you know, current proposals based on “sensing” to avoid interference could cause permanent damage to over-the-air digital television reception.

There are two main categories of issue here: technical and compliance. Both must function correctly to avoid the outcome feared by the broadcasters.

On the technical side, if technologies can be developed that effectively eliminate the potential for interference, and regulations can be crafted that require the use of such technologies, the broadcasters have nothing to fear. This technical issue is relatively easy to debate, and while the broadcasters may seem overly cautious to some, their position is reasonable:

It has taken nearly a decade for government and industry to deploy digital television across this nation. A rush to place millions of unlicensed devices in the TV band without extensive real-world testing should not undermine these efforts.

But technical issues yield to engineers in time, and we can confidently expect cognitive radio to work properly in the end. Credible proponents argue that it is working correctly already. The FCC tested devices from Microsoft and Philips in July 2007 expecting to close this issue with hard data, but in a catastrophic blunder one of the tested devices was defective and failed the tests, leaving the issue open. The broadcast industry seized on this mistake and used it to characterize the technology in general as unripe. But the technical argument will eventually yield to conclusive experimental results, showing that cognitive radio works, and that unlicensed use of this spectrum as proposed by the FCC will not interfere with TV broadcasts.

The compliance and enforcement issue is far tougher to resolve, but it is separate from the White Spaces issue, and should be debated separately. This issue is actually more important, since it concerns not only the TV broadcast frequencies but the utility of the entire radio spectrum in the US. If devices that transmit on radio frequencies are badly engineered, defective or designed in such a way that they don’t conform to the regulations, it is possible that they might interfere with legitmate uses. As things stand, there is no guarantee that this will not happen, since the enforcement arm of the FCC is weak. Michael Marcus, in his “Spectrum Talk” blog goes into this issue and proposes some actions.

New York Times tells it like it is

David Pogue, the gadget-maven at the New York Times, went to a cell phone conference in Italy last week, and learned a few home truths.

On Independence Day he wrote a column that lambasted the US cellular carriers for their conservatism, and the following day he eulogized T-Mobile for deploying UMA. The UMA writeup is a PR flack’s dream. All true, too.

In the column on the calcification of the US cellular carriers, he indulged in a bit of wishful thinking:

If the iPhone becomes a hit, then, it could wind up loosening the carriers’ stranglehold on innovation.

Seasoned denizens of this industry may scoff, but it must be possible. And while UMA strives to exploit the VoIP genie while still keeping it in the bottle, at least its another step in the right direction. In the column on UMA, Pogue made a prediction that I happen to agree with:

But hard to believe though it may be, T-Mobile did make an announcement last week. And even harder to believe, its new product may be as game-changing as Apple’s.

The Wall Street Journal has already made the observation that the network operators don’t necessarily have their subscribers best interests at heart. But these two events in the same week may mark some kind of a turning point. I hope they do.

AT&T saddles iPhone customers with useless data plan

David Pogue of the New York Times, reviewing the iPod said:

When you’re in a Wi-Fi hot spot, going online is fast and satisfying.

But otherwise, you have to use AT&T’s ancient EDGE cellular network, which is excruciatingly slow. The New York Times’s home page takes 55 seconds to appear; Amazon.com, 100 seconds; Yahoo. two minutes. You almost ache for a dial-up modem.

After reading that, I decided that since I would never use the EDGE service (too frustrating). I would forego the data plan on my prospective iPhone, and just use Wi-Fi at home and at work. But then I discovered that AT&T won’t let me do that. The data plan is an obligatory expense if you buy an iPhone.

Adding insult to injury, Randall Stephenson, the new CEO of AT&T, said in an interview in the Wall Street Journal:

With this particular device, to not have an inclusive data package with a voice package would be almost irrelevant, right? This is a data and a voice product. It’s nonsensical to sell a rate plan separate.

It’s as though he is unaware that the type of person that buys an iPhone almost invariably already has Wi-Fi. He must know that nobody is going to wait two minutes for a page to load; if David Pogue’s experience is the usual one, nobody is going to use the EDGE network. Customers will use the Wi-Fi connections they are already paying their ISP (maybe AT&T) for.

Brough Turner on Network Neutrality

The estimable Brough Turner has written at length on the topic of Net Neutrality.

The first thing to read on this topic is his blog entry “Why there’s no Internet QoS and likely never will be”. In this article he makes the point that the only place where QoS measures make a difference is in the access link, and that the best way to ensure access link QoS is by putting a traffic shaping device behind your broadband modem. So no need for anything from your ISP beyond what you already expect, namely bandwidth and uptime.

In this article, Brough advocates a long view, focusing on increasing last-mile bandwidth, pointing out the danger of unintended consequences of regulation. He makes the point that fiber is not a natural monopoly, in the sense that there is adequate revenue per square mile in moderately densely populated cities to sustain multiple runs of fiber to each home. He identifies rights of way restrictions as the real barrier to last mile competition. In a similar spirit, he advocates opening up spectrum for license-exempt operation for last mile access. This article has similar arguments.

In this later article, Brough backs off a little to what seems to me to be a better position, namely regulating dark fiber, and fostering competition above it.

By 2007, Brough had nailed his colors to the mast. In this review of Susan Crawford’s paper, “The Internet and the Project of Communications Law,” he says:

I’d really like to see a national strategy to get as much of the population on dark fiber as possible.

And just a couple of months ago, he proposed a way to do it:

…unfettered municipal experimentation by any of the 22,000 municipalities in the US and/or interested community groups.

So there you have it. A relatively simple, seemingly doable solution to Net Neutrality, implementable by the grass roots, thought through by a smart guy who knows the subject inside and out.

I’m aboard!