Three Intriguing Tales and a Bonus

I wanted to write about three stories that were in the news today, and since I can choose just one you’re going to get all three. They all have something to do with the Internet, but the connections won’t be clear until the end of the post.

Frontier Communications, the rural broadband provider that built its business by buying unattractive territories from AT&T and Verizon as the Big Two focus more on wireless, is upgrading its Connecticut users to 100 Mbps. That’s pretty cool, and it has to mean they’re replacing copper with fiber, right? Actually no, they’re using the same hybrid VDSL with fiber backhaul approach that DSL inventor John Cioffi discussed on our High Tech Forum podcast recently (July 15). Frontier is using the latest and greatest DSL technologies, pair bonding and Vectoring. All the details are in the Frontier earnings call transcript on Seeking Alpha. In addition to electronics upgrades at the neighborhood level, Frontier has upgraded its middle mile network to fiber, which enables it to sell Ethernet to its business customers, a much more profitable niche than highly-competitive residential service. Surprisingly, Frontier gaining share in 75% of its markets. So DSL ain’t dead yet, not by a long shot. Add to the fact that Frontier will be able to provide cable TV services over its Super DSL network as well as adding broadband customers and presumably charging higher fees for the higher speed services. Not dead, and not sick.

Democrats are complaining about the FCC’s plan to relocate TV broadcast channels to the duplex gap in the upcoming (someday) spectrum incentive auction. This has the wireless mic companies and some broadcasters upset, because they had been led to believe that the duplex gap would be reserved for wireless mics. The duplex gap is, of course, the dead zone between mobile broadband upstream and downstream frequencies. It’s helpful to separate upstream from downstream on mobile handsets because their power levels are radically different. Wireless signals are relatively high power at the point of transmission, but they grow fainter with distance because they disperse like a flashlight beam does.

So there are three things going on here that come together to cause interference:

  1. Wireless mics aren’t very good at detecting wireless users and finding a free patch of spectrum;
  2. Mobile handets aren’t very good at separating uplink from downlink signals;
  3. TV broadcasters still want to use the airwaves to get their product to the 5 – 10 % of TV viewers who don’t have cable or satellite.

The interference problem between these three players could be solved by any single player acting on its own. Wireless mics can be resdesigned to use Wi-Fi or LTE-U, but they don’t currently work that way. Mics have real-time communication needs that common Wi-Fi does handle very well, so they would need to adopt the more advanced form of Wi-Fi (it’s called Scheduled Access and it works like LTE-U) and the less crowded higher frequencies. They’re in the same boat as Garmin and the other exercise sensor makers were in before Bluetooth Smart came along and gave them a standards-based low power system.

Mobile handsets could transmit and receive on the same channel, like Wi-Fi does and like China makes them do. The mobile version of this communication mode is Time-Division Duplexing or TDD. TDD is less efficient than the more common Frequency Division Duplexing (FDD) that most regulations permit. So it’s not totally desirable, but it’s theoretically doable.

And the TV broadcasters could just stop broadcasting and go exclusively cable, satellite, and whatever new and cool video streaming service is going to be the Next Big Thing in TV delivery. As a bonus, going full streaming would increase their ad revenues. They will lose a few customers, so that’s their downside.

If you’re the policy maker, how do you resolve this conundrum? One approach is “the greatest good for the greatest number”. It’s pretty easy to see where that would go. One thing I would like to see is better wireless mics that don’t need their own spectrum. Isn’t it time to make that happen already?

Story number three is the Senate Cybersecurity bill, S. 754. Like all cybersecurity bills, this one isn’t perfect. Sen. Wyden is against it, as are Sen. Franken and others:

Wyden is not alone in voicing these concerns. Both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, along with the Department of Homeland Security, harbor growing apprehensions. Keith Chu, Wyden’s press secretary, said Monday that there is a “strong and significant number” of senators from both parties who want to see amendments to the bill.

The root problem is the Internet architecture, which is insecure by design. Hence, it’s literally impossible to secure any collection of information attached to the Internet from intrusion and attack. This means cybersecurity is whack-a-mole, even for the systems with the best protections from bad actors. The way companies deal with attacks today is by sharing information with their friends with other networks to manage. If Verizon sees an attack coming from users on Comcast, the security guys in the two networks talk and see what they can do about it. Because of various privacy worries, it’s not clear how much of this is legal, so the bill clarifies when and where this sort of thing is legal. That is a step forward, even if it’s not a big one.

Cybersecurity is one of those “the perfect is the enemy of the good” scenarios that cries out for a magic bullet that’s not in production yet. Sorry.

So I promised you a common theme, and you’re going to get one. Before I reveal it, take a guess of your own. I’ll just wait here and play the Jeopardy music…

OK, time’s up. By unifying theme is that there’s more going on in the tech world than most of us realize, hence High Tech Forum is here for you. Fiber is not the end-all and be-all of networking; there are too many outdated systems using spectrum; and the Internet will never be truly secure, but we live with its shortcomings because we like the upsides.

Bonus fact: T-Mobile is now the nation’s third biggest mobile operator. How did that happen? Tune in next time…