Friday, March 10, 2006

Everything Old is New Again

Mr. Blog writes on "Net Neutrality, 1996", with his thesis being that 10 years ago, the Internet took off due to the ubiquity of dialup access; the telco raked in significant money by providing dumb transport (second phone lines) with no knowledge of or control over the content (V.34, anyone?). "Neutrality" at its finest.

I'd extend this thesis to say that the Internet took off due to the ubiquity of flat-rate dialing for dialup internet access. In the rest of the world, where metered usage was far more prevalent than in the US, the widespread use of the Internet grew a lot more slowly.

Now if anyone thinks back to those bucolic days of yesteryear, they may remember constant rumors called the "modem tax". The rumor was that telcos would monitor the phone conversations for modem traffic, and charge modem calls differently than voice calls -- charging per-minute or capping the minutes that could be used on the flat rate line.

Substitute "perform deep packet inspection" for "monitor the phone conversations for modem traffic", "guaranteed QOS" for "modem calls", "charging based on QOS" for "charging per-minute", "capping the downloads" for "capping the minutes", and "broadband access" for "flat rate line", and that paragraph could have been written about the current situation. Except then, the telcos universally denied any intention to take such action. Now, they're advocating it.

Ripoff or Reasonable?

Tom Evslin is irate that AT&T is charging soldiers 21 cents a minute for calling card calls from Iraq to the US, and doesn't permit access to other phone card providers' access numbers. Jack Decker is even irater.

According to the article in the Prepaid Press that Tom cites, AT&T charges 21 cents per minute for calls from Iraq. This price, the meme goes, is outrageous.
You can buy prepaid cards almost anywhere in the world to call the US for less than two cents a minute.
Also outrageous, the meme goes, is that the soldiers are denied the chance to use a less-expensive calling card.
But when a company appears to be abusing their monopoly position to pick the pockets of people who have no other choices, I get upset.
Disclaimer: I, like Tom, used to work for AT&T. I wasn't anywhere near Carpetland. I did go there for a meeting. Once. They didn't invite me back. But one boss of mine was in the same part of the building as some of the Labs folks who were responsible for establishing the calling centers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they were rather proud of what they had done - there aren't many places in the Labs where people hang pictures of their projects on their doors, but that was one of them. So I got curious. Is AT&T taking unfair advantage of their position in Iraq to gouge the soldiers?

I went looking for the international prepaid calling cards that allow you to call the US from Iraq for less than two cents a minute. Perhaps AT&T's biggest LD rival, MCI (now Verizon Business), would have a better rate. Doing some searching, I found three MCI international prepaid cards that show rates from Iraq to the US (Not sure all the deeplinks will work):

Branded as MCI ConnectHome: 45 cents per minute
Branded as AbsoluteGlobal, sold through ZapTel: 45 cents per minute
Branded as MCI World Traveler Phone Card: 56.3 cents per minute

Hmm. Maybe the other of the Big Three, Sprint: Nope. Not available.

OK, obviously the Big Three are all thinking the same way. But the Prepaid industry is ultra-competitive, and there are a lot of small companies that have extremely low prepaid card rates. So let's look on Google for "international calling card" and see what we can find:

WorldTraveler Card (PhoneCardSavers): 56.25 cents per minute - good to see that it's the same rate that MCI /VZB uses. Although Calling Card Plus has the same card with a rate of 45 cents per minute. Not available No cards available for service from Iraq. Not available

There were a number of sites that had rates for PC to phone or callback cards, but I was unable to find any calling cards with rates from Iraq to the US that were less than 45 cents per minute - more than twice what AT&T is charging.

Other than anecdotal evidence, is anyone able to document phone-to-phone calling cards with a rate for calls from Iraq to the Continental US less than what AT&T is charging?

Would it be preferable for AT&T to allow callers to use other companies' calling cards? Sure. Would it help the soldiers? Doesn't look like it.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Intel demos a WiMAX-enabled laptop on a scooter that is delivering speeds of 2 Mb/s.

"Support of data rates up to 75 Mb/s" is a widely-bandied-about figure.

I've even seen some people claim 150 Mb/s.

Alas, Shannon-Hartley's not just a good idea, it's the law.

WiMAX supports a number of modulation types and coding rates; the best is 64QAM 3/4, which provides a raw data rate of 4.5 bits per baud, or 4.5 bps/Hz. Let's be generous and assume that a hypothetical WiMAX network has such a dense forest of base stations that everywhere Sean Maloney rides his scooter in San Francisco, his WiMAX card is operating at 64QAM 3/4.

The 2.3 GHz WCS band licenses in the US are for 5 MHz channels; 2.5 GHz BRS/EBS licenses are for 6 MHz channels. So with that 6 MHz channel, the maximum theoretical data rate for WiMAX is 27 Mb/s. Hang Sean's scooter from a crane right in front of the base station antenna, and he won't get any better than 27 Mb/s raw channel capacity.

That's raw bits, though. You have to then factor in the WiMAX PHY overhead (about 15%), MAC overhead (about 20%), and MAC convergence sublayer overhead (about 10%). Now you're down to about 16.2 Mb/s user payload throughput. Remember, we're still talking best case - 6 MHz BRS/EBS channels, and enough base stations that you've got 100% coverage with 64QAM 3/4.

Well, OK, 16 Mb/s is still pretty fast, right? But remember, this is a shared medium, and that 16 Mb/s is combined upstream/downstream. How many WiMAX cards does Intel hope to sell? Because even with only a 256 kb/s upstream, that's only about 7 simultaneous users at 2 Mb/s.

150 Mb/s? Not hardly.

75 Mb/s? Not even close.

2 Mb/s? Sure, if a carrier builds a dense forest of base stations, because you need small cells both to get as much 64QAM coverage as possible and you need a lot of them to provide the capacity needed.

Monday, March 06, 2006

AT&T-BLS Merger

Over/Under on the number of Star Wars Episode 6: Return of the Jedi/"rebuilt Deathstar" references among the blogniscenti: 12.