Femtocell pricing chutzpah

It’s like buying an airplane ticket then getting charged extra to get on the plane.

The cellular companies want you to buy cellular service then pay extra to get signal coverage. Gizmodo has a coolly reasoned analysis.

AT&T Wireless is doing the standard telco thing here, conflating pricing for different services. It is sweetening the monthly charge option for femtocells by offering unlimited calling. A more honest pricing scheme would be to provide femtocells free to anybody who has coverage problem, and to offer the femtocell/unlimited calling option as a separate product. Come to think of it, this is probably how AT&T really plans for it to work: if a customer calls to cancel service because of poor coverage, I expect AT&T will offer a free femtocell as a retention incentive.

It is ironic that this issue is coming up at the same time as the wireless carriers are up in arms about the FCC’s new network neutrality initiative. Now that smartphones all have Wi-Fi, if the handsets were truly open we could use our home Wi-Fi signal to get data and voice services from alternative providers when we were at home. No need for femtocells. (T-Mobile@Home is a closed-network version of this.)

Presumably something like this is on the roadmap for Google Voice, which is one of the scenarios that causes the MNOs to fight network neutrality tooth and nail.

Transparency and neutrality

Google and the New America Foundation have been working together for some time on White Spaces. Now they have (with PlanetLab and some academic researchers) come up with an initiative to inject some hard facts into the network neutrality debate.

The idea is that if users can easily measure their network bandwidth and quality of service, they will be able to hold their ISPs to the claims in their advertisements and “plans.” As things stand, businesses buying data links from network providers normally have a Service Level Agreement (SLA) which specifies minimum performance characteristics for their connections. For consumers, things are different. ISPs do not issue SLAs to their consumer customers. When they advertise uplink and downlink speeds, these speeds are “typical” or “maximum,” but they don’t specify a minimum speed, and they don’t offer any guarantees of latency, jitter, packet loss or even integrity of the packet contents. For example, here’s an excerpt from the Verizon Online Terms of Service:


Businesses pay more than consumers for their bandwidth, and providing SLAs is one of the reasons. Consumers would probably not be willing to pay more for SLAs, but they can still legitimately expect to know what they are paying for. The Measurement Lab data will be able to confirm or disprove accusations that ISPs are intentionally impairing traffic of some types.

This is a complicated issue, because one man’s traffic blocking is another man’s network management, and what a consumer might consider acceptable use (like BitTorrent) may violate an ISP’s Acceptable Use Policy (Verizon:”…it is a violation of… this AUP to… generate excessive amounts of email or other Internet traffic;”). The arguments can go round in circles until terms like “excessive” and “unlimited” are defined numerically and measurements are made. So Measurement Lab is a great step forward in the Network Neutrality debate, and should be applauded by consumers and service providers alike.

FCC Approves White Spaces!

This is incredible news. The FCC has done a wonderful thing, standing up to the broadcast TV lobby to benefit the people of America. What’s even better, four of the five commissioners are enthusiastically behind the decision:

It has the potential to improve wireless broadband connectivity and inspire an ever-widening array of new Internet based products and services for consumers. Consumers across the country will have access to devices and services that they may have only dreamed about before.

Some have called this new technology “Wi-Fi on steroids” and I hope they are right. Certainly, this new technology, taking advantage of the enhanced propagation characteristics of TV spectrum, should be of enormous benefit in solving the broadband deficit in many rural areas.

Today the Commission takes a critically important step towards managing the public’s spectrum to promote efficiency, and to encourage the development and availability of innovative devices and services.

While new broadband technologies are the most likely uses of these channels, the most exciting part about our action today is that we are creating the opportunity for an explosion of entrepreneurial brilliance. Our de-regulatory order will allow the market place to produce new devices and new applications that we can’t even imagine today.

The fifth commissioner, Deborah Taylor Tate, is only partly on board – she thinks some of this spectrum should be licensed, and she is concerned that not enough provision has been made for remediation in the event that interfering radios are deployed.

The FCC decision is a bold one – a more conservative positive decision would have been to approve a rural broadband access-only (802.22-style) use for now, but the commissioners went ahead and approved personal/portable use as well, which is what Google, Microsoft and numerous other computer and Internet industry companies have advocated.

The ruling imposed a geolocation requirement which will vastly increase the market for GPS silicon, though the trend in embedded GPS is to include GPS on the same die as other radios (like Bluetooth or cellular baseband) so whoever makes the White Spaces radio chips will probably be putting GPS on the same die by the second product generation.

The digital TV transition will open up the White Spaces spectrum in February 2009, but I will be very surprised if any white spaces consumer products appear in the market before 2010.

White Spaces Videos

I found this “grass roots” video on Google’s Public Policy Blog. That blog also has some interesting posts on related issues by Richard Whitt and Vint Cerf.

Looking at this provoked me to go to YouTube and search for other White Spaces related videos. I was interested to find a coordinated (by Google) effort by the proponents of White Spaces, and on the other side basically nothing – just this incredibly lame video that takes 7 minutes to tell us that microphones are used in sports broadcasting (don’t waste your time watching more than a few seconds – it’s the same all the way through).

It’s odd that the main opponents of Whitespaces (NAB and MSTV) haven’t put rebuttal videos on YouTube yet, and even odder that they haven’t found a need to present any more thoughtful analyses of the issue, equivalent (but presumably opposite) to those of Chris Sacca or Tim Wu. Instead, I have the impression that their strategy rests on the two prongs of public fear-mongering and bare-knuckled political lobbying.

White Space update from TV Technology.com

Robin Berger of TVTechnology.com has written a good summary of the current (9th April 2008) state of White Spaces. She details the status of device testing at the OET and the recent proposal by Google on spectrum sensing, noting that Google’s embracing of geolocation puts them at odds with the rest of the Wireless Innovation Alliance.

She lists the main advocacy groups on each side of the issue, and summarizes their positions. Among the people apparently interviewed for the article are Stu Overby, Motorola’s senior director of Global Spectrum Strategy, Ed Thomas of the White Spaces Coalition and Ahren Hartman, Shure’s director of Platform Engineering. Also quoted in the article are David Donovan of the MSTV and statements from the NAB and the Broadway League, which is interested in wireless microphones.

In the discussion of the testing, the article covers the wireless microphone issue in depth, with an interview with Ahren Hartman.

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.

iPhone thirty to fifty times better than other phones?

Owners of iPhones know that web browsing on the iPhone is a completely different animal than on any other cell phone. How different? Well, it would appear to be thirty to fifty times different.

Thirty times is difference in data usage between iPhone users and others on the T-Mobile network in Germany, according to Unstrung.

Fifty times is the difference in the number of Google searches by iPhone users compared to others according to Google.