Tag Archives: mobile

Billion dollar fine, new management and “security guarantees” gains ZTE U.S. access

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ZTE is back in business. The Chinese mobile phone and network equipment manufacturer paid $1.4 billion in fines and replaced its board of directors in order to make peace with the U.S. government. The federal commerce department effectively shut ZTE in May when it cut off access to U.S.-made products, including high end chips and key bits of the Android mobile operating system.

The problems began when the U.S. government accused ZTE of doing business with Iran and North Korea, in violation of U.S. trade sanctions. ZTE’s response wasn’t robust enough to suit the U.S. government, so the company was cut off from U.S. technology and had to close its doors, albeit temporarily. That kicked off a round of what passes for superpower diplomacy these days, according to a story in Bloomberg

President Donald Trump reversed course in May, saying he was reconsidering penalties on ZTE as a personal favor to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Later that month, his administration announced it would allow the company to stay in business after paying a new fine, changing its management and providing “high-level security guarantees”…

ZTE last month took a major step forward in meeting the White House’s conditions by firing its entire board and appointing a new chairman. Its new management faces the challenge of rebuilding trust with phone companies and corporate customers. But the company is said to be facing at least $3 billion in total losses from a months-long moratorium that choked off the chips and other components needed to make its networking gear and smartphones.

ZTE isn’t alone. Huawei, China’s biggest mobile phone maker (ZTE is number two), is also in the Trump administration’s crosshairs. The Federal Communications Commission is considering locking both companies out of federally subsidised projects, because of security concerns. That same kind of thinking led the Trump administration to block the sale of Californian chipmaker Qualcomm to a Singapore based company, Broadcom.

It’s appropriate for the U.S. government to worry about national security, and to take specific steps to meet specific threats. But conflating security with economic advantage is a losing game. The best guarantee of national security is shared economic interests, not trade barriers. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, perhaps egregiously, those who would give up a free market to purchase a little temporary security will get neither.

U.S. senators want cities to act fast on small cell permit applications

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There’s bad news and maybe a little good news for cities in a draft U.S. senate bill that aims to speed up wireless broadband deployments. Senate bill 3157 was introduced last week by senators John Thune (R – South Dakota) and Brian Schatz (D – Hawaii). It’s a bipartisan and significant pairing – Thune chairs the senate’s commerce committee and Schatz is the ranking democrat on its communications subcommittee.

The bad news is that the bill would reduce the amount of time local governments have to process permit applications for wireless facilities. In cities with populations of more than 50,000 people, an application for a new “small personal wireless service facility” would have to be granted or denied within 90 days, or else it’s automatically “deemed granted”. Permits for adding more equipment to an existing facility – a collocation – would have to acted on in 60 days. Smaller cities would get more time, up to 5 months in some cases.

Under current California law and Federal Communications Commission rules, it’s a 60 or 90 day limit for collocations and 5 months for new sites, also with automatic approval if the shot clock runs out.

The good news, such as it is, is that the bill specifically allows cities and states to “regulate the placement, construction, and modification of small personal wireless service facilities” on aesthetic, concealment, safety and structural engineering grounds.

The National League of Cities isn’t happy with the bill, according to Politico.com

“We are disappointed that the Commerce Committee did not fully address our concerns about local preemption, and imposing a new federal one-size-fits-all mandate for small cell deployments won’t work for all cities,” said Tom Martin, a spokesman for the league. The National League of Cities had objected to the original draft proposal circulated last October, arguing its provisions would be unfair to municipalities.

Thune wants to hold a hearing on the bill later this month. Thune and Schatz teamed up on the bill proposed last year. This time around it’s a bit less tilted toward mobile carriers and it could have enough support to make it into law.

ZTE shutdown could lead to a mobile OS startup

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A major Chinese smart phone and telecoms infrastructure manufacturer was stopped cold by U.S. trade sanctions, after it 1. did business with Iran contrary to U.S. rules and 2. didn’t adequately punish the executives responsible for the violation. ZTE announced last week that “the major operating activities of the company have ceased”. It’s number two smart phone maker in China, behind Huawei, but has a low profile among U.S. consumers.

The U.S. commerce department issued an order that bans U.S. companies from doing business with ZTE. Since technology developed in the U.S. – much of it here in California – is critical to high technology products, ZTE had no choice but to shut down. It might be temporary, though, according to an article by Roger Cheng on CNET

The company had to shut down its operations to comply with the order, but it continues to talk with US government officials about a potential stay or reconsideration of the denial order, according to a person familiar with the situation.

“Ceasing operations does not mean we’re going away,” the person said, noting that ZTE has a cash reserve and could eventually tap into financing to stay alive.

The company is also pegging its hopes on broader discussions between US and Chinese officials in their bilateral trade talks – ZTE is expected to be a topic of conversation brought up on the Chinese side, the person said.

One critical piece of technology that ZTE can’t have is Google’s Android operating system, or at least the bells and whistles that go along with it. Android’s core is open source, but linked elements, like the Google Play store and many of the apps in it, are proprietary and now off limits.

ZTE won’t just roll over die. The commerce department’s order might even serve to weaken the Apple/Google mobile operating system duopoly. Of the two ZTE smart phones I’ve owned, one was based on the Firefox mobile OS. It didn’t go anywhere in the market and was eventually shelved, but it shows that ZTE knows its options.

Mobile phone radiation limits are safe, FDA concludes following ten year study

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Mobile phones don’t significantly increase the risk of cancer, given current safety limits. That’s the federal Food and Drug Administration’s assessment of two long term studies recently completed by the National Institutes of Health.

Rats and mice were exposed to higher-than-allowed levels – up to six-times as much – of radio frequency radiation for nine hours a day for two years. According to the NIH, only one significant negative effect was observed, and only in male rats…

High exposure to radio frequency radiation (RFR) in rodents resulted in tumors in tissues surrounding nerves in the hearts of male rats, but not female rats or any mice, according to draft studies from the National Toxicology Program (NTP)…

“The levels and duration of exposure to RFR were much greater than what people experience with even the highest level of cell phone use, and exposed the rodents’ whole bodies. So, these findings should not be directly extrapolated to human cell phone usage,” said John Bucher, Ph.D., NTP senior scientist. “We note, however, that the tumors we saw in these studies are similar to tumors previously reported in some studies of frequent cell phone users.”

Based on those findings, the FDA concluded that “we have not found sufficient evidence that there are adverse health effects in humans caused by exposures at or under the current radio frequency energy exposure limits”.

Research will continue into the possible effects of holding a mobile phone up against a human head for extended periods of time, as it should. But there’s an important distinction to be made: the level of radiation from a mobile phone in direct contact with skin is thousands (millions?) of times greater than the RF energy that same skin would absorb from a big cell tower or a small cell facility mounted closer to the ground.

By all the evidence, that risk is zero.

NTP technical report on the toxicology and carcinogenesis studies in B6C3F1/N mice exposed to whole-body radio frequency radiation at a frequency (1,900 MHz) and modulations (GSM and CDMA) used by cell phones.

NTP technical report on the toxicology and carcinogenesis studies in Hsd:Sprague Dawley SD rats exposed to whole-body radio frequency radiation at a frequency (900 MHz) and modulations (GSM and CDMA) used by cell phones.

Video will drive the U.S. mobile market in 2018

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Consumer electronics is collapsing into a two-product industry – smart phones and big screen televisions – and the balance is tipping towards phones. The end of network neutrality will accelerate the shift, as the big four U.S. mobile carriers use their control over network traffic and service pricing to sell more content and capture more viewing time.

The big beneficiary is AT&T. Its DirecTv Now over-the-top platform just passed the million subscriber mark. The Federal Communication Commission’s decision scrapping net neutrality rules allows AT&T to exempt DirecTv from data caps – zero rate it – while subjecting everything else you watch to monthly limits and hefty overage charges. Combined with its national footprint, the access to content its market share gives it puts it in the lead position among video companies trying to manage the transition away from traditional linear television service.

Verizon, T-Mobile and, to a lesser degree, Sprint also have in-house mobile video services, although none with the content buying power of DirecTv. Expect innovative, competitive tactics from them in 2018. But read the fine print carefully: discounts offered on video content could be balanced by higher and effectively hidden charges on other services, such as simple broadband access.

On the network side, all four major U.S. mobile carriers were in land rush mode in 2017, as they tried to lock down access to poles and other property that they need to densify their networks and meet the rapidly increasing demand for mobile bandwidth that’s primarily driven by video traffic.

In 2018, they’ll begin to deploy the first 5G systems, although those will just be for fixed wireless service. It’ll be at least three years before there is enough mobile infrastructure and consumer devices to make a real difference in the early, high revenue potential urban area that will be first on the list. For most Californians, reliable 5G mobile service is five to ten years away and some will never see it at all.

U.S. senate looks at stomping local wireless property rights and permits

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A draft bill bouncing around the U.S senate would preempt state and local ownership of public property when wireless companies want to use it, and would put tight limits on state and local authority to issue permits for wireless facilities on private property. It’s a bipartisan effort, led by senators John Thune (R – South Dakota) and Brian Schatz (D – Hawaii), both of whom are major congressional broadband policy players.

In a lot of ways, it resembles senate bill 649, which was approved by the California legislature this year then vetoed by governor Jerry Brown, who wanted a “more balanced solution”. This bill ain’t it. As drafted, the bill

  • Requires state and local government to make the public right of way, and poles and any “other facility owned by the state or local government” available “to support equipment for use by providers of wireless services”.
  • Says compensation for use of poles, right of way and other property must be “based on actual and direct costs”. Utility poles – as opposed to, say, street light poles – are exempted, in a double-reverse sort of way. Rates for attachments to utility poles are governed by existing state and federal laws, and are similarly restricted to actual costs. The formulas used to determine those rates will be the presumptive method for figuring out the actual and direct cost of attaching wireless transmitters and antennas to street lights and other publicly owned assets. In California, that rate is around $25 per year, give or take a few bucks, per foot of pole used. That’s even less than SB 649, which allowed actual cost plus $250 a year.
  • Creates a shot clock of 60 days to “act on” collocation permit applications and 90 days for any other request to “to place, construct, or modify wireless service facilities”. Current federal shot clock rules are more complicated, and range from 60 days to 150 days.
  • Provides that if the shot clock expires without a decision, the permit application would be automatically “deemed granted”. California already has a similar “deemed approved” law, that’s tied to the various 60 to 150 day shot clocks.
  • Extends all the related courtesies and privileges of telcos to cable companies, without any of the associated regulatory obligations.

So far, the bill hasn’t been formally introduced. That’s not such a big deal in the federal congress, where final bill language regarding any topic can materialise at the last moment and be tacked on to completely unrelated legislation. This draft reads like it was written by wireless and cable lobbyists, who wouldn’t be at all interested in giving it a fair and open hearing. As the year winds down, anything could happen.

Windows mobile suffers the Blue Screen of Death, Microsoft moves on

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Microsoft is done with the mobile operating system business. The man in charge of Windows 10, Joe Belfiore, announced the end of the mobile version in a tweet. Like Bill Gates, Belfiore switched to Android.

Current Windows mobile users – both of them – will continue to get security updates and other tweaks, but development of the system has ended. The market just wasn’t there, Belfiore tweeted…

We have tried VERY HARD to incent app devs. Paid money.. wrote apps 4 them.. but volume of users is too low for most companies to invest.

According to IDC, a research company, it was a very small volume indeed – three one-thousandths of a percent – 0.03% – of the global market in the second quarter of 2017. Put another way, out of every 100,000 phones sold from April through June, only three shipped with Windows mobile installed. That’s despite Microsoft’s best efforts and megabucks. Even buying Nokia and making its own phones didn’t help.

Android and Apple’s iOS own the market. Blackberry is making Android phones. Sailfish and Tizen are barely handing on. Tizen is making a place for itself as an embedded operating system for consumer electronics devices; Sailfish is struggling to find a niche as a super-secure platform for the terminally paranoid.

There’s a good article by Vlad Savov in The Verge that tells of all the things Microsoft did right – not least, the tiled, flat user interface it introduced was picked up by web developers and became a design staple.

But the one thing it couldn’t shake was the perception that Windows is your grandfather’s operating system and Microsoft is the Ninth Circle of cubicle hell. Developers preferred to live under Apple’s ultra cool fascism or jump in the Android mosh pit dug by Google. Likewise, handset makers found a comfortable home in the relatively open Android environment.

Microsoft already turned down the path of becoming a platform-agnostic service provider. Now it can accelerate the pace, and push ahead in the mobile market without the distraction of Windows.

Open access does not guarantee open broadband competition

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When national governments run mobile broadband networks, they do not run them well. That’s the unsurprising conclusion of a white paper published by GSMA, the trade association for mobile network operators that rely on GSM standards to one extent or the other – in other words, pretty much all of them.

A trade association that lobbies governments to advance the interests of its members might be expected to oppose what amounts to nationalisation of mobile network infrastructure and operations. So it’s hardly shocking that GSMA’s brief overview of publicly-owned open access mobile networks – the government or a favored company builds one, single network and sells wholesale space on it to mobile retailers – doesn’t have much good to say.

But the report should be judged on its merits, and not dismissed simply because of the source. On that basis, it does point to a couple of supportable, and pedestrian, conclusions.

First, it highlights an ordinary truth about big government infrastructure projects: far more are proposed than implemented, and even the ones that move forward usually aren’t started, let alone completed, on schedule. The paper looks at five open access mobile network initiatives. Three – in Kenya, Russia and South Africa – never began, and one, in Mexico, is taking shape slowly, with no guarantee that anything will actually be built. In that sense, mobile networks are little different than other government led infrastructure projects.

Then there’s the fifth network, in Rwanda. It was actually built, in a public-private partnership with KT, a big South Korean telecoms company, and it’s been operating for about three years. Build out has been slower than planned and might never reach its target of covering 95% of the population, but it does reach something like a third of the population and it’s the only source of 4G LTE service in the country.

The GSMA white paper is woefully short on details, but it does provide one interesting, quantitative indicator that few benefits have flowed to consumers, at least not yet. Since the open access 4G network was launched late in 2014, the price of mobile broadband service has stayed flat – the three major mobile operators all charge around 6 cents per megabyte/$60 per gigabyte.

That’s also not surprising. To the extent the three companies re-sell service on the Rwandan open access 4G network, they all have the same wholesale cost. With only three players, the mobile market is very concentrated, which means it’s less likely that they’ll engage in a profit-killing, price led race to the bottom.

Mobile carriers say their broadband isn’t very fast, so FCC sets lower standard

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The Federal Communications Commission is on a mission to slow down broadband in rural areas. Or at least protect incumbents who don’t invest in their networks in rural markets where competitive options are few to non-existent.

The latest move approved by commissioners sets a low bar for mobile broadband service. Similar to its Connect America Fund program that subsidises fixed, mostly wireline service in communities with sub-standard Internet service, the FCC administers the Mobility Fund for mobile carriers. In order for qualify for subsidies under the plan reaffirmed by the FCC earlier this month, existing mobile broadband speeds have to be below 5 Mbps download, with no standard at all set for upload performance.

That’s in contrast to the wireline subsidy program, which sets 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up as the minimum. Rural carriers wanted the FCC to use the same standard for mobile service, and in the process make more areas eligible for subsidies. But the FCC didn’t buy it, arguing that they have to establish service levels that are “reasonably comparable” to what’s available in urban areas and, contrary to what they advertise, the big mobile carriers say they don’t do all that well…

Although [the rural wireless carriers group] claims that the median download speed provided by nationwide carriers is approximately 12 Mbps, Verizon counters that, depending on demand, consumers in an urban market may see service slower than 5 Mbps. Furthermore, despite the fact that providers have used different standards and methodologies to report coverage…the nationwide carriers are all generally reporting minimum advertised download speeds of 5 Mbps for their 4G LTE network coverage.

Other national mobile carriers, including notably T-Mobile, made similar arguments. It’s funny how they try to sell customers on blazing fast performance, and then turn around and trash talk it when it’s time to protect their poorly served rural turf from subsidised competition.

The Trump administration’s FCC is also considering lowering the standard for advanced service from the current 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up level to 10 down/1 up, at least for mobile broadband, another move that would please big incumbent telcos and cable companies and help protect their monopoly business models.

Making much of the rural U.S. a competition-free safe zone for incumbents is the wrong thing for the FCC to do, and sanctioning lower broadband speeds at a time when demand is skyrocketing is the wrong direction to take.

Mobile voice migration hits the halfway mark, but don’t confuse it with broadband

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Voice telephone service has finally tipped to predominantly mobile, according to statistics compiled by the federal department of health and human services. The latest survey shows that a bit more than half the homes in the U.S. no longer use landline telephones to make or receive calls…

In the second 6 months of 2016, more than one-half of all households (50.8%) did not have a landline telephone but did have at least one wireless telephone. More than 123 million adults (50.5% of all adults) lived in households with only wireless telephones; over 44 million children (60.7% of all children) lived in households with only wireless telephones. The percentage of households that are wireless-only and the percentages of adults and children living in wireless-only households have been steadily increasing. The observed 2.5-percentage-point increase in the percentage of households that are wireless-only from the second 6 months of 2015 through the second 6 months of 2016 was statistically significant. The 2.8-percentage-point increase for adults and the 3.0-percentage-point increase for children across the same 12-month time period were also significant.

It’s a significant milestone, but it should be read for what it is – a measure of how people make voice calls. It doesn’t say anything in particular about how people access the Internet.

The distinction is important because telephone companies, and AT&T in particular, continue to push lawmakers and regulators to allow them to rip out copper wireline networks and replace them with wireless service. When they make those arguments, they wave statistics like these and claim that people don’t need wired connections anymore, while deliberately distracting them from the facts that 1. many mobile voice-only homes connect to the Internet via wired connections and 2. mobile data is very expensive and slow compared to even legacy DSL technology, particularly in rural and inner city communities.

Voice is migrating to mobile, although there will be demand for landline service, too, for many decades to come. Don’t confuse it with broadband service, which continues to see increasing in-home demand for speed, capacity and reliability that only wired networks can deliver.

Wireless Substitution: Early Release of Estimates From the
National Health Interview Survey, July–December 2016