28-Jun-2012 My experience with the official ICS release for the Rogers S II LTE
02-Feb-2011 Windows Phone 7
18-Apr-2007 Wasting Bandwidth
25-May-2004 Voice Recognition Hell
29-Aug-2001 What's Wrong with Current Phone Designs?
18-Jun-2001 Future CODECs and what we might have to put up with
13-Sep-1999 What is it with some People?

The following articles make no attempt to be unbiased. In fact, they ARE BIASED as they reflect my personal point of view on the topic. That's why I call them editorials. If I see something being done by any of the PCS carriers or hardware manufacturers that I feel you should know about, then I'm going to write about those opinions here. You may not agree with them, but that's okay.

If you would like to comment on any of these editorials, drop me a note at pbextreme@gmail.com. You can also write to me if you have an idea for an editorial.

Wasting Bandwidth

Before I begin, I would like to clear up any potential misconceptions about what I mean by wasting bandwidth. To the end user, any legitimate use of bandwidth can never been looked upon as a waste. This article instead uses the term in reference to the providers and their attempts to sell specific kinds services.

In the beginning, cellular service was ONLY about providing voice communication, but over the years things have changed and data has become an integral part of the services provided by a cellular carrier. Data transfer rates have increased over the years and we've now reached a point where the speeds are high enough to provide some rather interesting applications, including video calling, music and video streaming, etc. However, despite this the vast majority of users continue to own a cellular phone for the express purpose of making phone calls.

Like all data delivery mechanisms, the total amount of data that a network can handle at any given moment if decidedly FINITE. However, unlike high-speed internet services provided via wired solutions (such as cable modem and DSL), expanding capacity when it's needed it much more complex and expensive in the wireless world. Subsequently there is a very real ceiling on the amount of data that a cellular network can handle at any given moment.

The overall capacity of a network includes both data users and phone users, and so the network operator must provide some mechanism to ensure that the bulk of users (those making voice phone calls) aren't inconvenienced by heavy data usage. At first that wasn't really a big problem, since most data users were usually surfing the web and their overall usage was sporadic and light. Now, with the advent of streaming video and audio, the data user has the ability to put a very heavy load on the available bandwidth for continuous periods of time.

That brings me to the types of services presently being offered by service providers. In particular, streaming video (in the form of video phone calls, TV, and YouTube) and streaming audio (in the form of satellite radio feeds and other music services). Unlike web surfing, these applications use a continuous flow of data that uses up 10 to 100 times more bandwidth than a single voice phone call.

While companies like Rogers are advertising video calling, they obviously aren't expecting it to become too popular, because if it did they'd suddenly find themselves without enough bandwidth to provider all their subscribers with such a service. A rapid increase in the demand for bandwidth could result in network congestion, radical decreases in the throughput rate (which could render the new high-bandwidth services rather useless), or the necessity to jack up rates to slow down usage. Even doubling the network capacity could cost billions of dollars, but requiring an increase of 10 times present capacity would be out of the question.

Already wired internet providers are throttling (or have plans to throttle) such bandwidth-hungry applications such as BitTorrent and other file-sharing mechanisms. They CLAIM that the amount of bandwidth consumed by these applications hurts network performance and is unfair to the bulk of users who do not use them.

So with the above in mind, what happens if heavy-usage applications on wireless systems become more wide-spread and begin to have the same effect on wireless service? Will providers end up having to limit or throttle the use of high-bandwidth applications such as video calling and video streaming? How will they be able to accomplish this with services that they themselves are selling at cut-rate prices to entice data usage and increase ARPU?

The irony is that while they sell these hungry applications for cheap prices, other users trying to utilize cellular data services for something more useful, innovative, and bandwidth-friendly are finding that they have to pay surprisingly high data prices here in Canada to essentially subsidize wasteful gimmicks.

A typical phone call running on an 8 kilobit CODEC consumes less than 4 MB per hour of network resources, yet a video call could easily consume that much bandwidth in less than 10 minutes. To be fair, shouldn't a video call be charged at rates 5 to 10 times higher than voice calls? A single MP3 download could easily chew up 3 to 5 MB of bandwidth, and so shouldn't downloading a song be worth an HOUR of talk time?

While Canadians may complain about the price of data, the system is already grossly under-priced when it comes to these bandwidth-hungry applications. It's actually the low-usage data user or phone-only user who has to foot the bill to pay for extravagant wastes of a finite resource. Just recently Toronto Hydro upped their electricity rates citing lost revenue caused by people using energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances. Perhaps that just the way a free market works, by punishing those who conserve to reward those who waste.

Voice Recognition Hell

My wife recently received a mailing from Fido that made me realize just how pervasive one particular BAD IDEA has become. The letter might as well have said:

Dear Fido customer, you are hereby sentenced to Voice Recognition Hell. Why should should Rogers pre-paid customers have to suffer there without you, especially now that we at Rogers own your sorry ass.

Okay, maybe that's a bit over the top, but this is one more nail in a coffin I bet you never realized they were building. Just about every single automated system at the Canadian cell phone companies has been switched to voice-activated.

On the surface this SEEMS like a good idea. Under ideal conditions (minimal background noise, no one to bother, etc) the scheme does work as advertised. Unfortunately I can't see many users being in ideal situations all that often. All it takes is loud background noise, other chatter nearby, or any time you are in a group situation where screaming "I said YES god damn it" to your phone would be consider RUDE, the idea just doesn't fly. It also doesn't work if you don't properly enunciate the words, and this can be especially troublesome for non-English-speaking users.

But service providers must be sensitive to this. Surely they would give us the OPTION of using voice or falling back on the tried-and-true touchtone method. Such naive thinking, of course they DON'T. This is one jail sentence with no time off for good behavior and no parole.

As for Fido pre-paid customers, it seems that Rogers believes that entering *110 and then a password is WAY TOO COMPLICATED for the minds of those chimpanzees they seem think use pre-paid service. But lest you think I'm singling out Rogers for this I should note that Telus and Bell Mobility are just as guilty of implementing systems such as this WITHOUT offering the option NOT to use it.

If you are happy with the voice activated systems, then I can only assume that you use them infrequently, use them in ideal conditions, and speak English fluently enough.

It's just my opinion, but voice activated services WITHOUT touchtone fallback is a wrong-minded idea that needs to be nipped in the bud.

Update (18-Apr-2007): Well, after 3 years of hell, it seems that some of the providers (notably Fido) have realized that a non-talking option is necessary. The Fido system will revert to keypad input after misunderstanding you twice in a row. It isn't exactly perfect, but it's way better than having no choice at all. Fido also re-implemented a means to refill prepaid accounts and check balances without having to "talk" to the system, and so kudos to them. With any luck, other providers will come to their senses and provide a similar "out".

What's Wrong with Current Phone Designs?

I review a lot of phones, and in doing so I’ve noticed a rather disturbing trend. Most of the new models coming out fail to provide competent core functionality. But what is core functionality anyway? I define this as the basic functions performed by all cellular phones, and it can be broken down into three categories:

1) RF Performance, which includes the ability to receive weak signals, and the ability to provide stable reception over a wide range of conditions.

2) Audio Performance, which includes overall sound quality, tonal balance, and audio volume.

3) Reliability and durability. These are self-explanatory.

You would think that after all this time that the manufacturers would have been able to perfect these aspects of a phone design. However, the recent crop of new phones has demonstrated that even if they can get one of these things right, they generally fail miserably on the others.

For example, the Ericsson R520m has gorgeous audio quality and tonal balance, but its RF performance (at 1900 MHz) is atrocious, and it produces an unacceptably high level of “transmitter buzz”. On the other hand, the Nokia 7190 has remarkable RF performance, but its audio quality and tonal balance leave a lot to be desired. The Mitsubishi G310 has incredible audio quality and tonal balance, no transmitter buzz whatsoever, but it has mediocre RF performance, low earpiece volume, and lousy reliability.

If only we could have a phone that sounded like the R520m, had RF performance like a 7190, and overall reliability of the now-discontinued 6190. Alas, I’ve found no such phone, for even the Motorola P280 and the Nokia 6310i have their flaws. Manufacturers are spending too much time developing 3G phones, or lavishing their 2G offerings with glitzy features that don’t do anything to improve the phone’s core abilities.

While I would like to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the phone manufacturers, I can’t do that in good conscience. Part of the problem, and perhaps arguably much of the problem, lies with consumers. Just read the messages on any of the cellular newsgroups and you’ll see that people don’t care about core functionality, and all they seem to want is glitzy features. So can you blame the manufacturer for giving the people what the apparently want? I swear that some people would happily buy a phone that didn’t makes calls at all, so long as it had desirable features that they could boast about to their friends.

However, these same people who claim not to care about a phone’s core functionality are the first to complain when their calls drop, or when they have to return their phones 5 or 6 times due to malfunctions, or when the audio quality is horrendously poor. They inevitably blame their carriers for this, insisting that they were sold a faulty product, or that the provider has a poor network.

Consumers have to realize that they drive the market, and manufacturers will gladly build exactly what consumers want, so long as consumers vote with their pocket books. However, as long as consumers continue to go gaga over the newest PCS toys, without due concern for the underlying competence of the product, then manufacturers will continue to build glitzy phones with poor core functionality.

Future CODECs and what we might have to put up with

The world is moving toward CDMA as the primary air interface technology. When 3G is finally implemented, we'll have cdma2000 (the upgrade path for current IS-95 providers) and W-CDMA (the upgrade path for GSM providers). Both are based upon CDMA, but both are different in some fundamental way. However, the drive for using CDMA isn't hard to figure out; CDMA has greater spectral efficiency than TDMA-based technologies. Spectrum is expensive, so the more users you can stuff into a given block of spectrum, the cheaper it is to sustain those users. Spectrum is also finite, so in some respects, spectral efficiency defines the maximum number of users your network can support.

But what does this have to do with CODECs, and what exactly is a CODEC? A CODEC is the methodology used to compress your voice into a stream of 1's and 0's for transmission through the air. A CODEC isn't unique to CDMA, it applies to all digital air interfaces, regardless of what underlying technology they rely upon. However, CDMA seems to have imposed a certain mindset on the designers of CODECs, and I'm not particularly pleased with the results.

Disregarding the horrible first-attempts at creating CODECs for CDMA, I will limit my discussion to the more recent EVRC CODEC, and the upcoming SMV CODEC. Both attempt to make even more efficient use of spectrum by using less bits to reproduce the same quality of voice. CDMA makes this goal achievable because a CDMA phone only consumes as much of the available bandwidth as it needs. Thus, the less bits a CODEC needs, the less spectrum it consumes. So far, so good.

However, it is this very concept that has driven engineers to add something to these CODECs which I feel is their single worst feature: Active Noise Suppression. The concept is seemingly laudable, since it strives to cut out background "noise" so that during periods when the user isn't speaking his phone consumes extremely small amounts of bandwidth. This is based on the accepted premise that a user is speaking less than 50% of the time. Why waste precious bandwidth transmitting background noise unnecessarily?

If this noise cancellation technology were perfect, and it had no impact on the quality of the voice under any circumstances, then I would fully support the idea with no reservations. Unfortunately that hasn't proven to be the case with EVRC. In practice, EVRC greatly degrades the overall quality of the voice when there is loud background noise present (such as in a moving vehicle). Although EVRC sounds very good under ideal conditions (low background noise) it becomes atrocious under high-noise conditions.

When SMV was announced I hoped that engineers had found a way of keeping their noise cancellation ideals while simultaneously ridding the CODEC of its tendency to degrade voice quality. I didn't think I would have a chance to find out for quite some time, but the CDMA Development Group were obviously quite excited about their newest toy that they put up a web page dedicated to allowing everyone to hear SMV for themselves. That page has since disappeared however.

I paid special attention to the section labeled "Harsh background (10dB SNR street) noise". I gravitated directly to this example to see what they'd done. Given that SMV will probably be the CODEC used in cdma2000 implementations I felt this was the make-or-break demonstration for me personally. Your opinion may vary from mine, but I was terribly disappointed to find that SMV suffered from the same audio-degradation problems with day-to-day background noise as does EVRC.

It therefore appears as though CDG's CODEC engineers pray at the alter of the capacity god, and truly believe that we will accept the mediocre audio (under harsh background noise) as necessary to please their god. I've got my fingers crossed that the engineers working on the CODECs for W-CDMA are not quite so single-minded. GSM users have a much higher expectation of sound quality, and I rather suspect that their development teams understand this. We can only hope this is true, since if not, we can only look forward to WORSE sound quality on upcoming 3G networks than we can get now from existing 2G networks. Perish the thought.

What is it with Some People?

While just about all of my comments on this web page are directed at cell phone companies, I found I could no longer remain quiet about the outlandish behavior demonstrated by some users. I'm not referring to people who simply complain when they encounter rude customer service reps, or those who gripe about poor coverage at their house. No, I'm talking about those morons who launch class action suits against cell phone companies for charging by the minute, or locking their phones.

What is it with these people? Do they think that just because a cell phone company doesn't give them exactly what they want that this is good reason to take them to court? Or are these people just greedy pigs who hope to make a few bucks (not that class action suits tend to be very profitable for anyone but the lawyers)? I think this whole state of affairs is a horrible reflection on society. Have we finally descended to the point where we hire lawyers every time something doesn't go our way?

Let's look at the charge-by-the-minute issue first. Granted, all cell phone companies who charge by the minute round up the time, and thus they reap extra income over those who charge by the second. However, I know of no cell phone company who keeps this a secret. They always tell you up front that they charge for airtime in this manner, and as such they are not guilty of misrepresentation. Any company has the right to charge anything they want for a product or service. In a free market system, that company will thrive or falter on how well they can sell their product or service. It is not a crime to charge more than the competition for a service or product.

Now let's look at the locked phone issue. Many people claim it is anti-competitive and/or criminal to sell a phone that can't be used on a different network. Disregarding the fact that a GSM phone can't be used on a CDMA or IS-136 network (for example), how can locking a phone be a crime? Once again, a company is allowed to sell any product it wishes, in any state it wishes, so long as it doesn't violate any consumer protection laws or lie about the condition of the item. When a cell phone company sells you a phone, it sells it to work with the service they provide. Absolutely none sell the phone with the promise that it can work with their competitor's network. Therefore, so long as the phone works on their network, as promised, they have not violated the law.

Perhaps these irate consumers should pull that stick out of their ass and take a quick course on capitalism. Everyone wants to live in a free country, but then they expect everyone else to bend over backwards making sure that they get their own way. Sorry folks, but that's not how it works. In a free market the consumer is expected to have at least a modicum of intelligence when they go out to buy something. Consumer protection laws are not there to protect people from their own crass ignorance.

And finally, did they actually read agreement they most likely signed? I suspect not, since if they had they would have found all of these things spelled out for them. Just because these people misinterpreted what they read, or made false assumptions, or just didn't bother to pay attention, doesn't make the company guilty of anything. Even as a consumer advocate (of sorts), I cannot abide by people who feel they have the right to sue anyone they want just because they aren't happy with how things are.