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So I took up David Weigel‘s challenge in Slate: Read the Reid Plan. Read the Boehner Plan. Get Back to Me… and got as far as this stuff in Reid’s plan:

Reid plan

(Sorry, I had to take a screen shot because the original is a .pdf and the copied text takes too much work to fix.)

So I’m wondering why… let’s see… Pages 46 to 82 — out of a 104-page document — are devoted to this stuff. I really don’t know, although I’m guessing it’s good for Verizon, AT&T and other bidders on that spectrum.

There’s plenty of coverage, of course. Here’s a list, some ranging a bit from the budget fracas, but perhaps illuminating the politics of spectrum, and why it’s in the middle of this thing:

The Boehner plan is utterly opaque to me, at least at this point. But maybe that’s because this spectrum thing stands out so obviously in the Reid plan, and spectrum is a subject I know a few things about. I’m opposed to selling any of it, and think we need to get past spectrum alone as a way to understand radio waves and how they work (especially when we sell off rights to use them… it’s like selling the color blue. I’m also big on open spectrum and unlicensed wireless, but no BigCo wants either, so those aren’t on the table, even though they’re already proven sources of economic benefits. By the way, whatever happened to “the public airwaves”? Remember those?

What do the rest of ya’ll think?

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When we went looking for an apartment here a couple years ago, we had two primary considerations in addition to the usual ones: walking distance from a Red Line subway stop, and fiber-based Internet access. The latter is easy to spot if you know what to look for, starting with too many wires on the poles. After that you look for large loops among the wires. That means the wiring contains glass, which breaks if the loops are too small. The apartment we chose has other charms, but for me the best one is a choice between three high speed Internet services: Comcast, Verizon FiOS and RCN. Although Comcast comes via coaxial cable, it’s a HFC (hybrid fiber-coax) system, and competes fairly well against fiber all the way to the home. That’s what Verizon FiOS and RCN provide.


We chose Verizon FiOS, which gives us 20Mb symmetrical service for about $60/month. The 25 feet between the Optical Network Terminal box and my router is ironically provided by old Comcast cable TV co-ax. (Hey, if Comcast wants my business, they can beat Verizon’s offering.)

My point is that we live where we do because there is competition among Internet service providers. While I think competition could be a lot better than it is, each of those three companies still offer far more than what you’ll find pretty much everywhere in the U.S. where there is little or no competition at all.

The playing field in the skies above sidewalks is not pretty. Poles draped with six kinds of wiring (in our case electrical, phone, cable, cable, fiber, fiber — I just counted) are not attractive. At the point the poles become ugly beyond endurance, I expect that the homeowners will pay to bury the services. By the grace of local regulators, all they’ll bury will be electrical service and bundles of conduit, mostly for fiber. And they won’t bury them deep, because fiber isn’t bothered by proximity to electrical currents. In the old days (which is still today in most fiber-less places), minimum separations are required between electrical, cable and phone wiring — the latter two being copper. In Santa Barbara (our perma-home), service trenching has to be the depth of a grave to maintain those separations. There’s no fiber yet offered in Santa Barbara. At our house there the only carrier to provide “high” speed is the cable company, and it’s a fraction of what we get over fiber here near Boston.

All this comes to mind after reading D.C. Court Upholds Ban on MDU Contracts: FCC prevents new exclusive contracts and nullifies existing ones, by John Eggerton in Broadcasting & Cable.  It begins, “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Monday upheld an FCC decision banning exclusive contracts between cable companies and the owners of apartments and other multiple-dwelling units (MDU).”

The rest of the piece is framed by the long-standing antipathy between cable and telephone companies (cable lost this one), each as providers of cable TV. For example,

Not surprisingly, Verizon praised the decision. It also saw it as a win for larger issues of access to programming:

“This ruling is a big win for millions of consumers living in apartments and condominiums who want nothing more than to enjoy the full benefits of video competition,” said Michael Glover, Verizon senior VP, deputy general counsel, in a statement. “In upholding the ban on new and existing exclusive access deals, the Court’s decision also confirms the FCC’s authority to address other barriers to more meaningful competitive choice and video competition, such as the cable companies’ refusal to provide competitors with access to regional sports programming.”

Which makes sense at a time in history when TV viewing still comprises a larger wad of demand than Internet use. This will change as more and more production, distribution and consumption moves to the Internet, and as demand increases for more Internet access by more different kinds of devices — especially mobile ones.

Already a growing percentage of my own Internet use, especially on the road, uses cellular connectivity rather than wi-fi (thanks to high charges for crappy connectivity at most hotels). Sprint is my mobile Internet provider. They have my business because they do a better job of getting me what I want: an “air card” that works on Linux and Mac laptops, and not just on Windows ones). Verizon wanted to charge me for my air card (Sprint’s was free with the deal, which was also cheaper), and AT&T’s gear messed up my laptops and didn’t work very well anyway.

In both cases — home and road — there is competition.

While I can think of many reforms I’d like to see around Internet connectivity (among citizens, regulators and regulatees), anything that fosters competition in the meantime is a Good Thing.

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New England is full of ruins. Woods everywhere are veined with stone walls, relics of an agrarian age that ended when the industrial one began. Shipping canals, which were thick with horse-drawn cargo when the Thoreau brothers rowed past them up the Concord & Merrimack Rivers, were abandoned once railroads did the same job better. Mills along canals and rivers have long since been torn down or turned into museums, stores or condos. Bypassed by cars and trucks on highways, old railroad beds have lost their easements or turned into bike trails.

So now what happens to radio and TV — two more old industries with landmarks on landscapes? I visited the subject to some degree over in Linux Journal yesterday, with What if they gave a DTV transition and nobody came? Here I want to go farther, and look at an industry we know is going to die — and to start doing it well before the end arrives.

AM radio, which operates on such low frequencies that signals are radiated by entire broadcast towers, are built as single or multi-tower “arrays” sitting on buried conductors: “ground systems” that can take up more space in soil than their towers occupy in the air above. Most of these facilities were built between the 20s and 80s. Since then scarce land and environmental restrictions have slowed their spread. I would add that available frequencies are also scarce, but that hasn’t stopped the FCC from easing rules, over and over, turning the band at night (when signals bounce off the sky to reach hundreds of miles from their transmitters) into wall-to-wall hash.

FM radio has only been around in a serious way since the 1950s. Operating on a VHF band, where the antennas themselves don’t need to be large (as they do on AM), FM does best when radiated from altitude, meaning the tops of mountains, buildings and high towers. Some of the latter grow to the legal limit of 2000 feet.

With its VHF and UHF signals, television also requires transmission from altitude. When you see a very high tower standing on landscape, or a bristle of short towers atop mountains and skyscrapers, you’re looking at sources of TV, FM or both. A huge percentage of the world’s tallest masts (a category that includes buildings and towers) stand in the U.S., and many are the full 2000-foot height. Most were built for TV stations. (Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of these. Also of tower collapses — a remarkably long list.)

The first set of these to go the way of ship canals is low-band VHF TV. That is, channels 2-6. After June 12, no antenna broadcasting on those channels in the U.S. will continue to operate. Most high-band VHF TV channels — ones operating on channels 7-13 — will also be abandoned, though a few will continue to transmit digital signals. All stations that formerly occupied channels 2-6 will move to a UHF channel (14 to 50).

Old analog TV transmitters are mostly worthless and can’t be re-purposed. (Here’s an excellent piece on that subject, from The Current.)

What I’m wondering about are the towers. The Current’s story suggests that they’re too expensive to take down (not worth enough in scrap), and that most will be re-purposed in any case.

I don’t think so.

It might be easy enough to re-purpose a few former Channel 2 or Channel 4 towers. But what happens when AM and FM transmission is obsoleted by webcasting? This hasn’t happened yet. There are many architectural and UI challenges, plus the added legal burden of copyright restrictions, which are much tougher on music broadcast on the Web than on the air (at least in the U.S.) But the end will come. The brightest writing on the wall right now is the Public Radio Tuner, a project of CPB and several public radio organizations. Last I heard (disclosure: I’m involved in the project), downloads of the free tuner for iPhone were past 1.6 million. This and other tuners, on the iPhone and other portable devices, will account for more and more listening, especially as more cell phone data plans take the ceilings off data consumption — as AT&T has already done for the iPhone.

Some have suggested that TV and FM towers can be re-purposed for cellular use, and to some degree that’s true. But cellular coverage requires many sites at low elevations, rather than a few at high elevations. As one Cisco guy told me, “they might be able to lease out the bottom 200 feet” of a tower.

Still, ends always come, and The End is in sight for over-the-air radio as well as TV. Then what?

Bonus linkage: Scott Fybush‘s amazing series of visits to broadcast towers, over many years; and a few of my own photos of transmitting sites, many shot from altitude. Also the blog and tweets of George Clark, both of which led to this digression.

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One reason I got the iPhone was that it’s GSM. Meaning it should work outside the U.S. I also thought I had a plan with AT&T that allowed that. Well, now I’m in Europe and my iPhone just says “Searching…”. Did it in Frankfurt, and does it in London.

Anybody have any clues for a fix on this?

[Later...] Fixed. See comments below, and thanks to everybody.

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