Why Is AT&T Allowing VOIP?

The news is all over the web (Ars Technica, MacWorldCNet): AT&T, which had previously had a policy which allowed VOIP apps on its flagship smartphone, Apple's iPhone, to make calls only over WiFi rather than over its 3G network, has relented.

Femtocells: Let Mobile Carriers Use Your Internet For Free While You Pay For The Privilege

In my RSS feeds this morning-- practically next to each other-- are these two stories.

Combined, these stories are great evidence of a company so large that its right hand does not know what its left is doing.

To connect the dots for those who don't obsessively follow innovations (or rather commercializations) in telecommunications technology, the first story is about the AT&T "microcell" (also sometimes called a femtocell or a picobasestation or any of any other similar terms).

The headline suggests that "no monthly fee" is some kind of great deal. Of course the story also doesn't really tell you what the device does, at least not completely. The point of this thing is ti improve your cellular reception, especially in areas where your 3G data connection is slow because of weak signal. It hooks up to your own Internet connection and allows phones to connect to AT&T through that.


In the industry, the connection between a cellular base station and the core of a telecom operator's network is called "backhaul". It is something that costs a lot of money. The distances between base stations and other portions of a company's network can range from a few hundred meters to several hundred kilometers. The rollout of 3G with its higher data speeds in the USA was delayed specifically because of insufficient backhaul capacity on mobile operators' base stations; many such stations were provisioned with a single T1/E1 line, which was enough for voice calls and slower data services, but not nearly enough to serve data-hungry devices like the iPhone-- devices that are actually convenient enough to use for Internet applications that people actually use them, which is rare even among large screen devices that call themselves smart phones.

Of course, one might ask, devices like those usually have WiFi, and if you're in a place, like your home or your office, that has fast Internet, you probably have WiFi-- so why not just use that and to heck with buying a $150 gadget that, thankfully, AT&T is not charging you to operate?

The reason is because certain features of phones, like the normal cellular voice calls and SMS text messages, don't natively work on WiFi connections. Of course, you can install chat and text messaging programs that work over WiFi that duplicate the functionality of SMS, if not the actual implementation. Some may even offer gateways to SMS messaging. You can also install VOIP applications that talk to VOIP providers like Vonage over SIP, and use that over WiFi. Of course, AT&T really doesn't want you to do that, since that means you can make voice calls without paying them anything. The only thing they get out of you then is your monthly subscription fee. You can start to see why AT&T sells devices like the iPhone locked to their networks and with long contract terms. They know that the iPhone is such a popular and capable device that there is a real danger in the near future of it reducing usage of their network resources and thus reducing their income.

AT&T knows you can just hook up a WiFi router while at the home or office and use your phone that way. This device is a buttress against that. Install this device instead, and then you can use fast Internet and AT&T's phone service instead of WiFi-- and hey, we won't charge you for that!

What a deal!

Of course, Sprint subscribers are not so lucky. They do pay a monthly fee for a similar device-- $5 a month to use it, plus an activation fee, and $10 a month if you want unlimited calls on it. (Presumably you're already paying for a certain number of calls on your phone, so essentially they are double-dipping here. They are charging you an extra fee to allow you to make unlimited calls that are going out to AT&T over your own Internet line that you are paying for. It almost certainly costs AT&T less to connect these calls than calls made in a traditional coverage area through a traditional, macro base station, but you're still going to be providing them another flat monthly fee to get a service you're already paying for (voice calls) over a transmission line you've already paid for (your Internet line).

Net Neutrality

Now, all of this would just be Business As Usual in the telecoms industry if it weren't for the second article, wherein AT&T comes out against Net Neutrality rules (which the FCC is currently drafting) applying to mobile operators.

Nevermind that even the most persistent of traditional Bellheads can see the entire market switching from fixed to mobile, and from voice-centric to data-centric. Nevermind that AT&T's most popular phone, the iPhone, is built from the ground up as a data-centric device and is the most smartphone that consumes the most Internet traffic worldwide, thus making AT&T more a fixed and wireless ISP than a traditional, voice-centric telecom. Nevermind all that.

The thing that is side-splittingly hilarious about these two items in combination is that Net Neutrality is specifically designed to prevent an ISP from doing exactly what many of them would probably consider trying to do the minute they see a device like one of these femtocells pop up on their clients' networks: throttle it.

In a world where cable companies who used to do just television are adding data and then voice, and telephone companies are adding data and then TV, and ISPs are adding both, a device like that, that uses the channels of one ISP to deliver voice and SMS traffic for another operator, is a potential threat. Net Neutrality rules would state that it doesn't matter that you're using your Verizon connection to hook up an AT&T femtocell, thus putting traffic you're purchasing from the one to the benefit to the other. Verizon cannot block or slow or charge extra for carrying that traffic to AT&T. Of course, if Verizon could do such a thing, it'd likely kill the nascent market for devices like this. Expanding your coverage area and getting faster Internet on your phone by using your flat-rate high-speed Internet connection sounds like a great idea, until you find it doesn't work that well because your ISP doesn't like you using it, or until they start to charge you extra for it.

So these Net Neutrality rules would be really good for AT&T in this case. It means that Verizon, or any other competitor who might be offering Internet service to its mobile subscribers, cannot interfere.

Except AT&T doesn't want these rules to apply to them.
The reason? Because wireless is already plenty competitive without these rules.


P.S. This Gearlog Article does a lot more justice to the subject than the Apple Insider story because it emphasizes the cost-savings these devices provide to operators.

Master Chief Just Another Victim

First I'll say this: I liked District 9. However, I never really thought Neill Blomkamp was really the best choice to do the Halo film, and reading this quote in his interview with Rotten Tomatoes only confirmed it for me:

Talk About Boldly Going

Warning: Spoilers!

JJ Abrams has very, very boldly gone where many, many others have already gone before him. So much so that I'm not sure I'm as interested in where he's gone, or where he might go, as with just how damn boldly he's gone there.

To get some housekeeping out of the way, there are some positive things to note about the latest Star Trek film. It has obviously expensive visuals. An excellent job has been done to make these almost too-familiar characters resemble their origins from the 1966 series. The film is a competently and professionally-assembled action/science-fiction flick.

That said it also suffers from flaws that seem to have more to do with how films are made these days than with what is has done with the franchise. First Pike, and then Kirk, seem to be captaining the USS Lens Flare rather than the Enterprise; either that or Starfleet is now sponsored by Adobe and running Vista with all the Aero goodies on full. A moment with nothing exploding, being shot at, being hit, punching, running, flying seems to be a moment wasted in the filmmaker's opinion, so the film doesn't have many of those at all.

Historical Perspective On Boston-Montreal Playoff Series

So I'm watching the Bruins-Canadiens playoff series and I'm much gratified to see the latest incarnation of the Big, Bad Bruins having their way with (so far) the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, even up in Montreal. Pushing Montreal to a game 7 last year was a great effort but there's been tremendous progress this year, with the two teams reversing their positions; Boston now first in the East and favored to win over the eighth-seeded Habs.

A lot of columnists have, of course, dug out the history books to talk about this storied rivalry; how the two teams have met more in the NHL playoffs than any two other franchises (32 times including this year) and how in the 31 series to date, Montreal holds a commanding lead (24 to 7 all-time) and how Montreal won the last three in a row (2002, 2004 and 2008) even though last year's was by the skin of their teeth in a series that nobody expected to go to seven games against a Boston team that was not quite as deep or as talented as this year's club.

However, what few writers seem to have pointed out is exactly how much of those stastics are ancient history, from a time when none of today's players or coaches were even alive, when the equipment, the players, the buildings, and the game were all substantially different. Compare videos of today's game to footage from Boston's last two Cups in the early 70s and you'll see what I mean; it's the same game only in name and in the grossest possible sense.

So let's look at those historical results courtesy of Wikipedia.

Boston won the first series back in 1928-29 but Montreal won 20 of the next 21, 14 in a row, to compile a 20-2 record from then up until 1987. Of those meetings, seven of those were before divisional realignment and were actually Stanley Cup Final games. So while Montreal certainly had an edge in those days, there is little to be ashamed about in being the second best team. It may not be enough, it may not be something to brag about, but certainly the gap between winner and runner-up is not the same thing as the gap between winner and DNQ.

However, this is all ancient history. 1987 was 22 years ago. For a fair comparison of the two franchises in the playoffs, let's just look at the last 20 years, in which the teams met ten times (including this year) of which Boston has won five series (1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1994) while Montreal won four (1989, 2002, 2004, and 2008's 7-game squeaker).

If the B's go on to win one game in the next four chances, they'll take a 6-4 edge in the series' last ten meetings.

What ghosts?

OnLive Is Dead

I'm not sure how dead you can say something is when it was never really alive and is most likely just fraud, but let's give it a try.

This is the claim for OnLive's technology that is supposed to let you play AAA game titles without an expensive computer as long as you have a fast Internet connection:

Latency through the algorithm is just 1-ms instead of the 0.5- to 0.75-second lag inherent in conventional compression algorithms used in corporate video conferencing solutions, for example.

Now, let's ignore the overlap between people with expensive computers and people with very fast Internet connections. Obviously this business only has an audience if those two don't overlap too much, as ideally you want people with very fast Internet (5Mbps or so) but either don't have PCs capable of playing new games or simply don't want to invest in upgrading CPUs and GPUs as needed to keep up with new game releases.

So, for that to be an attractive proposal, the subscription fee would have to be less than what those upgrades would cost over a similar time frame. If you don't want to be cutting edge, but want to stay current, you could easily do so buying one new video card a year and paying about $200 for it. So that amount, plus the cost of however many games you'd be playing, has to be more than a year's subscription. So that proposition largely comes down to how many games will be available on the service, compared to how many games people plan on buying (or, rather, people's perceptions of how many games they are willing to buy, compared to how many they are prepared to give up-- presumably the service will offer a subset of all available games).

So the more games you'd be willing to buy in a year at $60 a pop-- three, four, or more-- it starts to look a bit better. Except you don't own those games; like subscription-based music and movie services, once you stop paying the fee, you lose everything and you've nothing to show for what you've spent so far except your memories.

Like Newspapers, The Associated Press Is Dead

I'm amused by the Associated Press' attempt to invent a new legal complaint-- "misappropriation"-- to defend the business model that they have so far failed to sufficiently change in order to adapt the company to the current market.

What's interesting though is that they invented that new concept eighty years ago:

In 1918, the AP was involved in a case called International News Service v. Associated Press. Like current competitor All Headline, INS didn't actually copy AP's stories. Instead, they'd snatch AP's hot wartime scoops off the wire, have a hired hack rewrite the story in his own words, and put out their own version of the breaking news without having to bear all the overhead (not to mention the considerable risk) of sending trained reporters to a war zone. It wasn't quite copyright infringement, but it sufficiently offended the justices' sense of fair play that they developed the doctrine of "misappropriation" to cover the immediate copying and dissemination of "hot news" by commercial competitors of a news organization. If such "free riding" were allowed, the judges reasoned, the parasites would always be able to undersell their hosts, to the detriment of journalism in the long run.

I'm not sure how you call this "free riding" since in order for INS to have access to the wire at that time, they would have had to have been subscribers. This is, in fact, what just about every newspaper that carries AP content in its print and/or web editions does, except that sometimes the hired hack doesn't really need to work that hard-- after all, they have the rights to run AP content for their markets, so they're just editing it for space.

INS of course was attempting to ape the AP, probably by paying one fee to the AP for access to the content, and then splitting that fee (plus some margin) to their own subscribers, undercutting the AP's own rates. What they are calling "misappropriation" is actually illegal sublicensing. Perhaps AP's client agreements at that time were insufficiently precise.

To drag this concept out of the muck to deal with aggregators, bloggers, and services like Google News is just ignoring the basic fact: the AP's business model is broken because the business model of their primary source of income, newspapers, is broken. It is broken in a way that cannot be mended. It has been broken now for nearly two decades, it has merely taken this long for the process to advance to a point where people are able to see it clearly.

The Portal Strategy Is Dead

I say it is dead but what I really mean is that the game is over. For many Internet users there is only one portal: Google. There were really only two candidates for the job, based on differing philosophies: Google and Yahoo. Yahoo built its model on categorization, banking on the idea that the Internet may not have been like newspapers, but it was like magazines: not arranged on geography but on subject matter.

It was a reasonable assumption, but breaks down because of the effort required for categorization and cross-referencing, as well as the sheer number of categories and subcategories. Google made its bet on keywords and indexing, eschewing discrete categories. Ultimately I think it is fair to say that this model has mostly triumphed.

So when I look at the fight between Google and the Associated Press, it's hard not to see the perspective of the AP and its subscriber/contributer newspapers as a throwback to the early days of the World Wide Web.

Everybody proclaimed that it was a revolution; it would change everything. No longer would freedom of the press belong only to those who owned one; the hegemony of large media companies would be forever broken, and censorship would henceforth be impossible.

When that failed to happen within a few short years, the web was declared a failure; an incremental improvement in technology that posed no threat to Business As Usual.

Both analyses were right and both were wrong, just at different times.

Battlestar of Africa

I suppose it's strangely fitting that in its finale, the remake of the late '70s space opera "Battlestar Galactica" should live up to the humorous pseudonym we gave it in our household: Battlestar of Africa. It made little sense then, just a play on the sound of words.

It makes even less sense now, as an epic struggle for survival ends in dogmatic ignominy, in Africa.

There are many better reasoned and more detailed critiques of the show's finale elsewhere (skepchick, slashdot) and as much as I am tempted to I will, in the interest of my blood pressure, resist the urge to go down that same path. Instead, some bullet points:

Pricing and Blu-Ray

CNet is at it again. This time, Don Reisinger wants to say that cheap DVDs are keeping high def Blu-Ray discs from selling. Here, look, he says it, right here:

It sure looks like DVD pricing is holding Blu-ray back.

Don, you are insane, or you have selective perception of a particularly nasty kind. Let's try that sentence this way, shall we?

It sure looks like DVD Blu-Ray pricing is holding Blu-ray back.


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