Thursday, October 13, 2005

High End Phones - Where Cell Phones Stop Being a Phone

A lot of people are getting on the "cute" phone bandwagon with the Razor phone this year, and once again I am amazed how people tend to think that these phones will work the same as their old ones. For years, these manufacturers came to me with phones with cameras, MP3 players, video players and each and every time I told them the same thing: if the phone performance goes down, I don't want to even see it.

The problem is that the form factor for these things has reduced so much over time, both in area for circuit boards, battery compartments and antennas that there isn't room anymore for the radio. Without the radio, you are better off buying the iPod over the Rokr, a nice Canon over the camera phone and just get a nice old clunker phone that actually can make calls.

First it was when they removed antennas from the phone. Amazingly, someone in marketing actually got that past hoards of engineers. Phones needs external antennas...PERIOD!!!! Yes, there is an antenna inside the phone, hidden by the housing. The problem though is that this is now a directional antenna instead of the nice omni-directional whip it replaced. Turn your head, poof!!!! Calls magically disappear.

Then it was size. The first phone I remember seeing that was small, outside the Star Tac (TDMA/AMPS model) was the Z Phone from Sony. The thing was small, cute and all the buzz. But it was a pile of crap. The design was all wrong, the antenna had loss out the wazoo because of testing requirements versus form factor. Crap, I say, Crap!!!!!

Now it is the effort of putting a laptop in a phone. Nokia is bringing is 9500 series boat anchor to the states, which has a full QWERTY keyboard inside, hoping to compete with Blackberry's hold on the business market. This phone doubles as a self defense weapon and at $730 should come with a Tazer, like that wonderful TV add a few years back. The thing weighs in at nearly half a pound; great if it was a burger, bad for a phone. The OS is not something to scream home about as it isn't Palm's disappering nor Windows.

Look, if you want a good phone, get a phone that is a phone. I promise you, the uglier the phone is, the better it will work for you. If you go to Qualcomm's HQ, nearly all the techies still carry the QCP-800/1900, their first handset ever. Why? The thing is feature poor, not too small, battery life horrible and some silly sliding ear piece that hung up the phone on every major bump in the road. The reason is that it works: Period!!!! Just like the rabid blackberry users who say you will have to pry the phone from their dead hands, you couldn't pay these people to get a new phone. I have even seen old Motorola brick and half brick phones in use (back when Moto made good phones). If you want something cute, just don't complain about poor performance.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Wireless Data - EDGE vs EVDO vs UMTS - Which acronym is right for me?

With every wireless company pushing to garner all of the business users in the US, new products are becoming more and more prevalent. Just this month, T-Mobile announced that they are on board in having a 2.5G data offering, releasing EDGE to their customers. Sprint and Verizon keep talking about their Broadband products, releasing new markets nearly every week. Cingular is still pushing ahead with their EDGE offering and working to complete their UMTS network builds. Ok, too many tech terms and way too many acronyms right? What is the difference between these product offerings and which one makes sense for me?

First, two terms that are the buzz words in wireless are 2.5 and 3G. These are actually standards requirements that state how fast the data must be to meet the minimum to qualify for the fancy label. These actually stand for Second and Third Generation, with 2.5 falling half way between the two. Second Generation was were Packet data finally replaced Circuit Switch data, making the user's experience faster and network costs more reasonable. Third Generation means that the average data rate must be somewhere north of 384 Kbps for the download - very similar to basic DSL speeds to the home. 2.5G was a marketing term for technologies that came out around 2000 that didn't quite make 3G speeds, but exceeded the 14.4 Kbps speeds seen in the late 1990's - better, but not quite good enough. So who does what?

Sprint and Verizon both have CDMA technologies that support 1XRTT and EV-DO. These are technologies based on the same fundamental radio link (EV-DO stands for Evolution, Data Only), so the user's equipment is backwards compatible to their older network. This makes life easier to upgrade and still not require your older subscriber to buy new handsets unless they want the data product. For 1XRTT, the typical user should expect 60-100 Kbps, and the new EV-DO can get up to 4-6 Mbps download rates.

Cingular and T-Mobile both now have GSM/EDGE networks. GSM is the voice system and EDGE is the data side. EDGE data can get up to 384 Kbps, but users will typically see somewhere closer to 80-100 Kbps. In order to compete with EV-DO, Cingular is working on UMTS (Universal Mobile Telephone Standard), which when adding HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) can get similar speeds, but more typically around 250-380 Kbps.

Prices for these networks are all about the same when looking at data only packages. Verizon offers VZ-Acess on EV-DO at $59.99/mo, Sprint $80 for their unlimited data package, Cingular at $79.99, with T-Mobile offering EDGE at $19.99, but this is new and not really published. On their website they list their GPRS data package at $29.99 (GPRS is a bit slower than EDGE, but again they are migrating away to the EDGE capable network).

Which one will work the best for you? That is really depending on how you plan to use it. A PDA phone package, such as with the Blackberry, to do email and some small web browsing will work well on any technology. If you need power downloading, ability to send large file back to the system, or use as Broadband access - WiFi replacement, then the only one that will really give you what you want right now is EV-DO or UMTS. Both get your speeds up to DSL type speeds on the download. Uploading however for all is really at Dial Up type speeds. These system are all asynchronous, with the idea that most users download more than they upload. Be aware of this if you have expectations to do hosting, data transaction services or large picture uploading.

How does each compare to footprint, capacity and/or network issues? Each of these technologies are relatively new and none are selling like hot cakes. Don't let some of the numbers fool you, not many people use these daily, except for the Blackberry users which are only doing email which is not that demanding. Each of these technologies is limited on footprint and none have the range of voice technologies. So if you can make a voice call there is no guarantee you can do data.

EV-DO is a shared technology - one pipe per sector for all users. This means that if there are 50 people in your office all using this technology you will not be happy. However, since the load is small now, people are very excited with what they get. This will only get worse though as more subscribers sigh up. The technology also doesn't extend away from the sites very well, so you need to be in a core area or in close proximity to get full through puts that people publish.

EDGE is more dedicated than EV-DO, but not as able to deal with interference as well based on its technology. That means you have to be even closer to the site in order to max out your speed, or if the network has issues in performance and design, you just won't be very happy. UMTS is very similar to EV-DO, since it too is a CDMA based technology.

How can I get more for less? Well, there is one trick to this that most companies don't publish. All voice phones now basically have data technology built into them. Some try to sell you data cards for laptops known as PCMCIA cards. These are data only. To get your voice phone to do data, basically all you need is a data cable. Even with the new phones with Bluetooth, most carriers have restricted the Bluetooth technology for headsets and not to be used as data links (stupid, stupid, stupid policy). If you go online and get a datacable - most carriers ironically don't sell these, rather trying to get you on a data package, you can use your voice phone as a network connection. The plus here is that these would be add on packages and not require you to buy the data bundle at $60-80. Do a google search for your phone model and your carrier. Some use #777 to trigger data calls, some use *99#.

Good luck in choosing your data packages for wireless. As always if there is another question triggered by my discussion here, feel free to contact me.



Monday, October 10, 2005

Why can't I take my existing phone with me? Subsidy Lock Ruins Wireless Number Portability

I often get calls from friends/family about how their existing wireless company finally did it, making them want to move to another carrier. I explain to them that I wish them luck, as all of them have the same problems, but that is not the point of today's discussion. Instead I am going to focus on the next question they all inevitably have, "why can't I take my phone with me????"

Well, the answer to that is pretty simple, yet technically complex. The main reason is that you never really bought the phone in the first place. If you remember back to when you signed up for the service, more than likely you got a great deal on the phone. No, I am sorry to say that the phone you paid a penny for is not actually yours. This practice, common to all wireless companies in the world, is known as subsidizing. They actually pay hundreds of dollars for that phone, only to discount it to you so that you will want to be with their service. In a sense, they are allowing you get a cool phone for nothing, since they make money on your wireless service, not selling you the phone. This viscous circle has every consumer in the world expecting cheaper and cheaper phones that do more and more.

So you may have possession of the phone, but the wireless company still "owns" it. What the companies do is to place special lock codes in the phone to prevent some other company from modifying the phone to work on a different network. For GSM companies, this is known as SIM locking; CDMA companies this is known as Master Subsidy Lock code.

The GSM code prevents SIM cards from other companies to work in hardware originally sold by another company. When looking on eBay, in the description you will see either unlocked phones or the company the phone works for. Unlocking the GSM phone is not too complex and if you google the world, the software and methods can be purchased, or even service offered for a fee. I know many people who do this for a living.

CDMA phones work a bit differently. They find systems based on a Preferred Roaming List (PRL), or a small file in the phone, that tells the phone what systems are good and what are bad. To make a Sprint phone work on Verizon, Cricket or any other CDMA company one would just need to copy that company's particular PRL into the phone. The phone really doesn't care what company's network it is on, it just has to follow the instructions from the PRL.

So why can't you do these things easily? Well, the Subsidy is very costly to wireless companies. The more they subsidize you in the beginning, the longer they need you to be a customer to break even. This is why companies like Sprint have two year contracts to get the best price on the phone. On the contrast, companies like MetroPCS who sell large all you can use plans don't have contracts so you tend to pay more for the handset. Compare a Samsung Camera flip on MetroPCS website at $219 versus $59 on Sprint with the two year contract. The wireless companies make money on your monthly rate plan so they are willing to lose money to get you as long as they see you will be there for two years at a certain revenue stream per month. That is why there is a fee for canceling early at about $150, which is magically the same as the difference in the cost between these two carriers.

So the last thing Sprint wants is you to get one of their phones for $59 and then activate that phone on MetroPCS' network. They would be losing money faster than they already are. To prevent that, most CDMA companies use a Master Subsidy Lock code to prevent people from writing over their PRL with another companies. This is the code they also use to program the phone with when you call and activate. Since this is the same code, many started using One Time Subsidy Lock codes to program the phone number, keeping the Master secret. The only time the Master Code would then be needed is if the software needs new software or an updated PRL. These codes are 6 digits in length and the phone usually will power off if you put in the wrong code, preventing you from trying all 1 million possible numbers. Verizon and some other CDMA companies didn't particularly protect these and used either 6 zeroes or '123456' as their Master Codes, which basically did nothing to prevent you from moving one of their phones to another carrier.

Can you hack into these phones? Of course you can. Many people buy expensive software and cables to "read" these secret codes. Some of the algorithms to generate these have also been cracked and can be found with a simple google search. Could I actually tell you how to get these codes illegally? You bet I can. I actually authored two such algorithms in the industry and could also tell you phone numbers to call where the system would give you the lock code for a particular carrier. But unfortunately this little problem with ethics prevents me from doing such a thing, even though I am not bound to any non-disclosure with these older companies. Call me old fashioned, but this industry is so small that if I were to burn my old companies I doubt I would be able to find work as a janitor in one of their offices.

You can send your phone off to these web site offerings on eBay and other places that promise to hack your phone for you and send it back ready to be activated on another carrier, or buy a phone for that company used there as well. The other option is you could just go in and get one at a steep discount and sign the two year contract. Most have annual policies to let you get another discounted handset every year, as long as you renew so they are basically giving you a discount to ensure you spend money with them.

Like I said, all wireless companies are about the same when you get down to the nitty gritty. One will have great coverage but no capacity, others might have better rates but no coverage or roaming. Bottom line is that by jumping ship you will be just going from one demon to another.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Just borrowing your tools - Theft of neighbors WiFi

The other day something came up in a question where someone couldn't use their WiFi that is a particularly large pet peeve of mine. I get a call asking for help getting their laptop on the net. Seems they could see the network, just not get online. So typical me, I start asking the standard questions on their network settings, drivers, location to the Access Point, etc...And just like half of the people out there, they were aloof on most of the answers. Why? Because they were 'borrowing' the service from their neighbor. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Well, I did a little looking on the subject, as this is something I have discussed but never researched. Seems that there are laws in some states that call this Unlawful Access to a Computer Network, legal speak for Hacking. In July of this year in Tampa a guy was arrested while parked in front of someone's house for hours using the wireless network.

"It's their own fault, they should secure it!" I hate when people use that argument on this. Just because someone leaves their front door open doesn't mean you are invited in, so why would an "open" wireless router be any different? Yes, people should take steps to secure what is theirs, but come on people!!!!! Stealing is bad. I grew up in a small town with keys in my car and the front door never locked. Still today go to my mom's house and enter through the garage side door. Life was good then. Now I feel I need security from my days in the Air Force in order to feel safe in my own home. Car jackers, home invaders, and now wardrivers (cute name for those who drive around town looking for open wireless networks)

So how do we solve the problem? From my side, it is three steps:

  1. Secure your own domain - if you want your neighbor on the system, then tell them the secret code
  2. Work with your community to build public hot spots so people can get on the internet at libraries, schools, parks and other common areas - the internet is a door that should not be locked to those who cannot afford access
  3. Don't do it, just don't steal - not that hard if you think about "do unto your neighbor"
So yes, it is illegal, immoral and impossible to stop people from doing this. However, if we all work toward the solution then being part of the problem should be a part of the past, just like the modem port on your PC which just doesn't get used anymore.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

How to tell when its your problem or the wireless company's

So, post two. Still no viewers except my daughter, but have to start small I guess.

This post will talk about the issue of poor performance. In wireless there are several things that can, and usually do, go wrong in serving customers. Here we will be talking about how to determine when it is a network issue, or one of your own doing - or undoing.

First, every network is designed to handle only so many of the total calls. This is usually called the Grade of Service (GoS), and typically is 98% in the wireless portion of the network and 99.9% of calls in the switch. The switch is the piece that connects your wireless call to the local and long distance phone companies plus other wireless carriers. So sometimes your calls are "designed" to be blocked. Why? Well, it comes down to cost per Erlang. Oh lord, now what is an Erlang????? That is the magic juice that flows in a wireless company. An Erlang is a ratio of something. In this case calls volume per hour of a circuit. This is like the dB value on your stereo from the 80-90's, it means something to someone, just not to the user.

A wireless network is nothing more than a wired one, just like your home phone, except the line from the telecom company to your device is a radio link and not a cable buried in your back yard. Each circuit costs them money and they hope that they get enough users to make money over their costs - most don't by the way, another posting another time. Each circuit can handle so many users, and when that usage is exceeded, you get blocked calls, dropped calls and in some cases no service today where you did yesterday. So how can I tell when it is the network?

  1. Drop/Block happens same spot all the time
  2. Call drops and when you look at the phone it shows no service, then jumps to max signal (bars)
  3. Call blocks immediately after dialing repeatedly versus sitting there in calling state for 10-15 seconds
  4. Voicemails pop up with no incoming call, or voicemail comes hours later
These are all typically caused by poor network capacity and/or coverage. These are the ones you should call in about, sit on hold and then try to get some credit. I found this link that has good info on how to get credits:

So then how do you know when it might be the fact that your dog tried to eat your phone, you accidentally pored a pint of the local brew on it, or it did a tumble off a balcony at some hotel bash? These typically show signs you might need to either use your insurance, or look on eBay for a replacement:

  1. Phone has problems everywhere
  2. Other friends/family can make calls on the same wireless system while you cannot
  3. Phone likes to power off
  4. Under your battery, the little red check boxes are now solid red - Water test strip that tells no lies
  5. While running on battery - only last about one year, then need to be replaced - the phone is horrible, but plugged in is fine
  6. Phone power cycles on its own
  7. It gets really really hot
  8. You couldn't figure out where to put those couple of extra screws after trying to change the faceplate with some cheap one bought at the mall
Note, don't buy those magic antenna boosters. They are basically $10 pieces of tin foil that don't do anything. If they did, the carriers would use them and sell them as then they would get better performance and have to spend less money. If you would make money twice, don't you think you would do that????

Hope this helps. Again, any questions or suggestions just drop a line.



Wireless on TV

Well this is the first posting, so if you happen to find this, let me know what you think...

My fiance last night called me and told me to catch Law & Order:SVU. She was wondering if the things that happened in the show relating to wireless calls were possible. The reason why she wanted my opinion is that for the past 10 years now I have designed, optimized and maintained wireless networks all over the US. If it comes to wireless technologies I either know the answer, or know someone else who would be able to answer that which I might not yet know about.

The premise of the show was a little girl tucked away in some pornography hell hole. She got out of one room, only to be trapped in an outer room. She did find a cell phone and was able to call 911. By the way, any cell phone -active or inactive- can call 911 as long as it can find a signal. So they started to try and track the little girl via the signals the cell phone transmitted to the towers.

Now they did mention early on that this was not one of the new phones that can be tracked by E911. That is a mandate that wireless companies in the largest 150 cities in the US be able to track emergency calls down to a specific accuracy (how accurate is a ratio, 30 meters some of the time, 100 meters most of the time). The idea is exactly this type of situation where people need help but can't say exactly where they are, either in a trunk of a car kidnapped, or on some highway in nowhere crashed into a tree. But only phones sold in the past few years have the technology on most wireless systems, and this one didn't.

So what could they then do? Well, all calls are transmitted to at least one radio tower. This tower covers a general area of a city, like here somewhere in Brooklyn. But that can cover many buildings, blocks or miles. Not exactly what they needed. The phone itself was lost by the previous owner, and was no longer activated, but again since all phones can call 911 the little girl could call them, but the cops could not call back to the phone. Here is where the system got a bit off.

The perp (I just like saying that) had somehow managed to install a virus in the switch that would "bounce" the call from tower to tower, so that one call looked like Brooklyn, then the next call looked like Queens and so on, and so on. That way the phone would not be able to be traced to a particular sector, and his secret lair of hideousness would never be found. This is where the writers finally started using poetic license.

First, the only way to talk to a switch is via its OSS (operational support system) 99% of the companies in the world will never put any public internet ports to a switch as the information on them is extremely sensitive and their lifeblood - your billing data. The perp (still loving it) would have to work for the phone company, or know someone who did. These are usually run on Unix systems, never windows, so the typical hacker would not be able to send an email with "click me now" type trojan horses. Is it possible to do this? Very unlikely, maybe 5-10 people I know of could hack there way in, run a program undetected in a Unix shell that has no direct port to the internet, and leave no trace of their activity.

Next, wireless calls just don't that far, especially in cities like New York. These phones are basically overgrown walkie-talkies. It has to be within the pathloss of the tower in order to talk. Yes the system could direct the call from one tower to another as that is exactly how you calls gets handed over from cell to cell while you drive and talk - public service break: don't do this if the call requires your attention, as then it doesn't go into your driving!!!! pull over and do one or the other please, ty=) - So getting a call into a basement of a building would be tough enough for one cell site, let alone another several miles away.

Now can anyone just track your calls? Well, there are features in your phone that disable location based services unless you are in an emergency call. Get out the manual - I know you might not have it anymore, so look online - and if you are afraid of big brother following you on your call - NCIS had this on the same night - even though your not talking, then just turn it off and your phone doesn't relay the location information needed by the system to track you.

Well, that is it. I plan on using this blog to talk to anyone and everyone about the benefits, problems and just any other silly topic about wireless technology. If you have any questions about something, let me know. As the name says this is what I know, and I love helping people understand the mystery behind that nasty bill they get every month.