Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Tag: wireless

Phone report

Gwen and I decided to update to the new iPhone 5, and along with that, I decided to switch carriers to Verizon. We’d previously been with AT&T, and Verizon was the one service that neither one of us had ever tried.

AT&T has notoriously bad service in San Francisco and New York from what I understand, but I had never had any trouble with them in Austin—except when there’s a big event in town that brings an influx of tens of thousands of visitors (and they’ve actually gotten pretty good about dealing with that). They do have lousy service out in the sticks—when I was riding the Southern Tier, I went a couple of days at a time without a signal. Verizon has better coverage in remote areas, including the site where Flipside is held, and now that I’m on the LLC, it will be more important for people to be able to reach me easily out there.

But so far, Verizon in Austin is not so great. I had no signal at all when I was inside Breed & Co on 29th St the other day. And Gwen had no data signal at Central Market on 38th St. And sound quality on voice calls seems to be worse than AT&T’s (this could be the phone itself, but I suspect it’s a voice codec issue). Usually, when I am getting a signal, it’s with LTE data, which is very fast. So there’s that.

And while I always felt that AT&T regarded me as an adversary, Verizon seems to regard me as a mark, which is even more galling than the poorer coverage. Immediately after signing up, I started getting promotional text-message spam from them. Apparently this can be disabled if you do the electronic equivalent of going into a sub-basement and shoving aside a filing cabinet marked “beware of the panther.” We also have those ARPU-enhancing “to leave a callback number…” messages tacked onto our outgoing voicemail greetings; some research showed that there are ways to disable this that vary depending on what state you live in (!), but none of them have worked for me so far. I’ve put in a help request. And every time I log into their website (mostly to put in help requests to deal with other annoying aspects of their service), they pop up some damn promotion that’s irrelevant to me. Like “get another line!”. Out of all the mobile carriers, the only one that I liked dealing with was T-mobile—but they’ve got the poorest coverage in Austin (I had to walk 2 blocks away from Gwen’s old place to get a signal), or anywhere else for that matter. As a friend who worked in the mobile-phone industry for years put it “They all suck.”

No complaints about the phones. I haven’t really tried out some of the new hardware features, like Bluetooth 4.0. The processor is much faster. The screen is noticeably better than on the iPhone 4, in addition to being bigger. People bitch about Apple’s Maps app. In Austin, I haven’t had any trouble with it, and in any case, Maps+ is available to give you that Google Maps feeling (in Iceland, I found that neither Apple Maps nor Google Maps had a level of granularity down to the street address—the best they could do was find the street).

Thoughts on bandwidth

In The real reason why Steve Jobs hates Flash, Charlie Stross wrote an analysis of Apple’s recent moves, and where he thinks Apple is headed (oddly, he never quite says what “the real reason” is). He’s looking 5–10 years down the line. I’m thinking about the next 1–5 years, and how (or if) we might get to the future that Stross envisions.
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They hate us

I’m starting to believe that American telecommunications companies actively hate their customers.

AT&T Mobility has just announced a change to their terms of service for 3G that basically makes any broadbandy use of it a violation of their TOS. Time Warner Cable has just announced monthly volume caps (these are sometimes called bandwidth caps, but that phrase strikes me as ambiguous), the highest of which will be 40 GB for $55 per month; overages will be priced at $1/GB.

Contrast this with Japan, where for about $35/mo, you can get a service with 47 Mbps downstream and 5 Mbps upstream. At maximum saturation, you’d burn through a 40 GB cap in 19 minutes. TWC’s lowest cap of 5 GB would take less than 3 minutes to burn through. Now, admittedly, nobody in the USA is getting that kind of bandwidth in the first place (I’m getting my carrier’s top level of service, which is about a quarter that speed up and down). And it should go without saying that NTT is not imposing any kind of caps on their service.

But wait, it gets better. Right now, Japan’s leading wireless carrier is field-testing the next generation in mobile broadband, a protocol called LTE (in the US, we call it 4G; over there, they call it 3.9G). This is running at 120 Mbps in their tests, and they plan on doubling that by the time it’s deployed commercially. At that rate, you could burn through a 40 GB cap in less than three minutes. Over the air.

American consumers are getting shafted by their telecommunications providers. Paying a nickel for a text message that costs exactly nothing to deliver is only the start. And let’s set aside spying on their customers for the NSA. With these increasingly restrictive terms of service and tariffs, I get the impression that carriers not only want to limit our expectations, they want to lower them.

I can’t explain the difference in pricing and service between American and Japanese companies, I can only speculate. And my speculations sound like a conspiracy theory.

Over the last ten or so years, we’ve seen Enron used as an inspiration for running the entire economy. A friend who used to be a muckety-muck at a cellphone maker said that telecommunications companies ultimately want to move towards a tithing-based pricing model—where you pay them a certain fraction of your income.

I have to imagine that in the boardrooms of AT&T and TWC, they rub their hands with glee at how they’re finding new ways to screw over their customers, just as Enron traders chortled over “aunt Tillie” sitting in the dark because they had engineered a power outage. That may sound over the top, but there’s definitely something about these companies that makes them want to provide the shittiest service they think they can get away with, not the best that is technologically possible.

And the thing about communications is that there’s really no way to “save up” those bits or bytes. Every second that fiber is dark is a second you can’t get back. Volume caps create an artificial scarcity where none exists.

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