Tag Archives: geek stuff

Huawei’s U.S. troubles jumpstart push for new mobile operating systems

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Huawei press conference ces 5jan2019

With the impact of a U.S. trading ban growing, Huawei launched its own operating system, initially aimed at Internet of Things devices but with the potential to compete with Android in the mobile phone ecosystem. Branded HarmonyOS (and called Hongmeng in China) it is designed to be lightweight and very secure. Huawei isn’t installing it in its smart phones, but that could change.

A deep dive into Huawei’s relationship with Google by The Information’s Juro Osawa highlights how Chinese companies have flirted with developing independent operating systems, but ultimately backed away from investing in a risky corporate strategy that could find no executive champions…

In 2016, a top Huawei executive passed on an opportunity to partner with the maker of an Android alternative called Sailfish, seeing little need for a Plan B…

After the meeting, [Huawei consumer division chief Richard] Yu didn’t follow up on the idea of working with Jolla. He showed little interest in an alliance with another maker of operating systems.

But even though interest in reducing dependence on operating systems controlled by foreign companies is now coming from the Chinese government, according to Osawa’s article, Huawei didn’t take the threat seriously…

“In China, companies that supply products to the government are under growing pressure to use domestic software as well as hardware,” said Canalys analyst Nicole Peng. “Major Chinese tech companies like Huawei are feeling obliged to develop their own homegrown operating systems.”

Huawei’s renewed effort to develop its own OS was halfhearted, prompted in part by the company’s need to conform to Beijing’s homegrown software push…few executives viewed it as an Android replacement because the chances of Google ending its work with the Chinese company seemed remote.

Huawei lost that bet, and is now trying to play catch up. The result could a further isolation of technology and online services behind national firewalls. Or it might be the impetus the industry needs to finally break out of operating system architectures that were drafted nearly fifty years ago.

Caltech turns eastern California fiber network into earthquake detector

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Caltech readout

Fiber optic networks do more than just ride out major earthquakes without dropping a bit. They can also detect and collect data on the quakes themselves. Two major quakes – magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 – hit eastern California on 4 and 5 July 2019 respectively, in the high desert of Kern and San Bernardino counties, where seismometers aren’t thick on the ground. To understand what happened, and what continues to happen, Caltech scientists needed to quickly get more sensors into the field.

Fortunately, the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada – Mono, Inyo, Kern and San Bernardino counties in California, and Washoe and Douglas counties and Carson City in Nevada – has fast, earthquake ready fiber connectivity.

The Digital 395 open access fiber optic network, which links Reno to Barstow along the eastern Sierra, runs right through the area that was hardest hit. By connecting “surveillance technology initially developed for military and general security applications that can detect ground movement” to a single fiber strand, an underground fiber route – or sections of it, at least – can be used for “pre-shock detection of P and S waves across the fibers”, according to Michael Ort, CEO of Praxis Associates/Inyo Networks, which built and operates Digital 395. In other words, fiber optic networks can be used detect the big incoming shockwaves a few critical seconds before they hit, as well as provide valuable scientific data about the event.

Preliminary discussions about installing distributed acoustic sensing equipment had been held with Caltech, but everything went into high gear when the quakes began hitting Ridgecrest. Zhongwen Zhan, a Caltech scientist, asked about using one of Digital 395’s strands, and got a quick yes from Ort.

He hooked up his instruments on 9 July 2019, four days after the 7.1 quake and while the ground was still shaking with aftershocks. The results were immediate, with multiple (mostly small) quakes detected every minute, beginning as soon as the equipment was turned on.

“The fiber gave them about 5,000 sample points over 10km of fiber. Before they had only a handful of sample points in the area. So you got only “discrete points” of these, not the overall picture”, Ort said.

“This first time ever use of fiber has given us many data points, making our observations more complete and natural”, said Mark Simons, JPL chief scientist and CalTech professor of geophysics. “It’s a true breakthrough that will revolutionise our perspective and help with early warning”.

Digital 395 was built with money from the 2009 federal stimulus program and from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). It was the first and the longest of the open access middle mile fiber routes funded by CASF, before the California legislature bowed to pressure (and money) from incumbent telephone and cable companies and banned those types of projects.

The eternal why not WiFi question has an eternal answer

by Steve Blum • , , ,


The retro look.

Every so often someone asks me something like why can’t we just use WiFi to deliver broadband service? For those of us who’ve been working in the community broadband sector for a decade or more, the question was settled with the collapse of the Great Muni WiFi Bubble more than ten years ago. But for most, that’s a relic of the distant and dim pre-iPhone past, when rocking good service was measured in kilobits and the fastest way to download a movie was to drive to a store and rent a video.

The answer is that WiFi technology was originally designed as an indoor substitute for short distance ethernet cables, and not for outdoor or wide area service. It uses unlicensed spectrum with power determined by federal regulations and propagation characteristics set by the laws of physics.

The primary factors that determine the practical service radius of a WiFi-based network are transmit power (again, limited by law) and antenna design and position. Other factors, such as foliage, interference/noise level and the limitations of the WiFi protocol, come into play, but raw power and antenna capabilities are the big ones.

So if you have a top of the line WiFi access point bolted to a light pole, using maximised omni-directional antenna design and transmit power, it can communicate at reasonably high speeds with a similar access point over something like 400 meters, assuming there are no major obstructions.

But if that access point is communicating through clear air with a laptop or mobile phone or similar mass market device, that effective distance drops to 100 meters or less. If there’s a wall between the device and the access point – i.e. the user is inside a home or business – the distance is considerably, maybe impossibly, less. The transmit power and antenna design of the user’s equipment counts, too. If the user has a special gizmo – a WiFi bridge with higher power and a better antenna – the effective range might go up as high as 200 meters, and it might be useable indoors. Might be.

But while might be is good enough for an occasional free connection to a hotspot, it isn’t an acceptable standard for mainstream, consumer grade broadband service. That’s why we need something better: appropriately designed, professionally engineered and sufficiently provisioned copper, fiber or wireless infrastructure.

Cutting off Huawei could kill it, or kill tech monopolies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Huawei press conference ces 6jan2014

Conventional wisdom is that Huawei can’t survive without access to U.S. technology. It was cut off from access to U.S. customers and vendors last week, although the toughest sanctions were delayed for three months earlier this week. If and when those sanctions take full effect, two companies – ARM and Google – say they’ll stop selling Huawei licenses to use two essential building blocks of the mobile industry – ARM’s chip designs and Google’s Android ecosystem. Huawei could be cutoff from similarly essential technology in other industry segments, for example the Windows operating system.

It’s dangerous to assume, however, that any company, let alone one as big and ambitious and well supported as Huawei will just roll over die. The company has said it’s kept a Plan B on the back burner for several years, which require it to launch its own operating system, to replace Android and Windows, and develop advanced chip technology in house.

There’s a lot of skepticism about a Huawei OS. The assumption is that it would be based on the open source bits of Android, but wouldn’t be able to gain any more uptake than past alternate mobile OS attempts, such as Tizen, Firefox or Sailfish. The counter argument is that the Chinese market is already semi-isolated from the global app and service ecosystem. If Huawei gets developer support and user adoption on its home turf – not a far out possibility – it could become the mythical third mobile OS that so many competitors – Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung, Canonical, Mozilla, [Blackberry] –(https://www.tellusventure.com/blog/blackberry-shares-the-big-one-with-the-cops/) have failed to capture.

Chipsets are a tougher problem, but there could be hardware workarounds, according to a TechRepublic article by James Sanders

In terms of hardware, Huawei is far from self-sufficient. Their HiSilicon division licenses the Arm ISA for use in Kirin smartphone SoCs and Kunpeng server CPUs. HiSilicon already possesses the requisite information to manufacture chips based on the technology, and they can continue to design ARMv8-powered chips without the involvement of Arm Holdings, which has cut ties with Huawei. The actual production of these is handled by TSMC, which is one of the few organizations continuing work with Huawei…

There are still options for Huawei…Samsung, LG, and BOE are potential vendors for displays, and Sony and Leica can provide lenses and sensors for cameras. Flash storage and RAM may be an issue, as Toshiba and Micron are used, though SK Hynix provides RAM on some devices, and Samsung can likewise supply both.

It’s too soon to know with any degree of certainty how this battle in the U.S.-China trade war will play out. It could just be another round of brinkmanship, and president Donald Trump has all but admitted that’s what this is all about. But if it isn’t, the result could be a global scale competitor to some cherished de facto technology monopolies, which are either based in the U.S. or dependent on intellectual property that’s rooted here. That would be good for the market, but it’s not exactly what the Trump administration has in mind.

Merry Christmas! Because that’s what today is

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Christmas vacation

Thank you, Gentle Reader, for the best Christmas present a writer can wish for: an audience. If you’re reading this on Christmas morning, you are doubly valued and thrice blessed. And you might even be interested in a blog post about the blog. If you aren’t, please forgive me and be assured my usual rants insights typing will resume tomorrow. If I were reading this, I’d just click here and listen to Jimmy Buffet and Linda Ronstadt instead.

The top three posts for 2018 were about 4K television, with the number one slot going to an analysis of 4K bandwidth requirements. With video already the biggest source of Internet traffic, upgrades to 4K and 8K formats, and beyond, will determine network capacity requirements for years to come. Big thanks goes to Danielle Cassagnol at the Consumer Technology Association for the stats.

The top ten included two posts about Tim Draper’s second attempt to break up California, this time into three states. The news that it was blocked by Californian judges finished far down the rankings, though. Frontier’s California travails also hit the list twice. The top ten was rounded out by posts about vertical integration, fiber maps and wildfire prevention.

It’s tricky to estimate how many people read this blog. I think my audience is something like 5,000 unique readers a month, including social media distribution, but it’s hard to know for sure. It’s stayed more or less even over the past year. If I include my occasional articles for Santa Cruz Tech Beat, which are usually republished here, the average goes up by untold thousands. Special thanks goes to SCTB editor Sara Isenberg for her patronage.

I’ve been posting every day, seven days a week for more than six years. At one point, my plan was to cut back to something like five days a week, but I couldn’t let go. For 2019, I really mean it. After CES, anyway. I made a deal with myself, and please hold me to it: write fewer but better posts. I’ll occasionally post on weekends when something is happening, and I might skip a holiday, when something is not. During the work week, I’ll maintain the schedule. Other changes are in the works, too.

Again, thank you for reading!

Will California earthquakes move faster than mobile networks?

by Steve Blum • , ,

Earthquakes happen quickly, but not instantly. The shaking can last anywhere from a few seconds to more than a minute for a major quake. The shock waves spread out from the epicenter at something like the speed of sound, so it can be a few minutes before everything stops moving everywhere. The initial underground movement can also be detected by instruments before it’s felt on the surface.

Data networks, on the other hand, run at nearly the speed of light. So the right sensors combined with fast, smart computers and ubiquitous broadband coverage can give a few seconds of warning to people via smart phones. In the case of a massive 9.1 magnitude quake in Japan, where such a system is already in place, Tokyo residents had a minute and a half to prepare.

There are a couple of early earthquake warning systems under development in California. One is about to be tested by the City of Los Angeles, which partnered with AT&T to develop it after the project was put out to bid last year. Another system, developed by a private company, Early Warning labs, and the U.S. Geological Survey, is also nearing the test phase in California.

But there is a big if in those assumptions: mobile networks have to perform flawlessly for it all to work. There’s concern that Californian wireless networks are not up to the job, according to a Los Angeles Times article by Rong Gong Lin

Another big challenge faced by the system is how slow cellphone networks and other communications can be in transmitting warnings to the public. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Wireless Emergency Alert system is not fast enough to support earthquake early warnings; there have been reports of tens of seconds to even minutes of delays in receiving such messages.

The government and phone carriers are working to improve speed, but an ideal fix could take years to implement.

5G technology, which is particularly designed to shorten data transmission times, will help. At least where it’s fully deployed. Communities that are lucky enough – affluent enough – to meet mobile carriers’ return on investment goals will see that happen over the next ten years. For everyone else, what you have is what you’ll get when the Big One hits.

Waymo gets permission to run cars without drivers in Silicon Valley

by Steve Blum • , ,

True driverless cars – not just autonomous cars with “safety drivers” on stand-by – will be roaming through five Santa Clara County cities. On Tuesday, the California department of motor vehicles gave Waymo a permit to ”test driverless vehicles on public roads, including freeways, highways and streets within the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Sunnyvale".

Waymo is the Google spin-off that began stealth testing self-driving cars in Silicon Valley in 2009. It’s already been running driverless cars in Arizona for the past year.

(In case you’re wondering, no, it wasn’t Waymo that was involved in a fatal collision with a cyclist in Arizona in March – that was Uber. A Waymo van did crash into a Mountain View highway median in June after the safety driver fell asleep and disconnected the autopilot, but no one was hurt).

According to a Waymo blog post, the cars are allowed to run at freeway speeds…

Waymo’s [California] permit includes day and night testing on city streets, rural roads and highways with posted speed limits of up to 65 miles per hour. Our vehicles can safely handle fog and light rain, and testing in those conditions is included in our permit. We will gradually begin driverless testing on city streets in a limited territory and, over time, expand the area that we drive in as we gain confidence and experience to expand.

If a Waymo vehicle comes across a situation it doesn’t understand, it does what any good driver would do: comes to a safe stop until it does understand how to proceed.

The cars will be linked to a command center where humans will monitor operations and resolve problems.

The permit allows Waymo to offer rides to the public for free; more California paperwork is needed if the company ever wants to start charging for it. “Early riders” in the Phoenix area began taking complimentary trips in April. In Santa Clara County, though, Waymo says it’ll just be employees getting rides for now, with public availability coming “eventually”.

Telecoms, data center infrastructure infiltrated, Bloomberg stories say, mystery deepens despite denials

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Taken at face value, a pair of articles on Bloomberg by Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley details how Chinese government intelligence agencies snuck tiny chips into computer servers used by Amazon and Apple, and by at least one major U.S. telecoms company. The devices – as small as the tip of a pencil – could be used to listen to communications going in and out, or to dive deeper into those systems.

If true, Bloomberg’s reporting means that the Chinese government, and possibly other intelligence agencies and criminal groups, have a backdoor that leads deep into U.S. telecoms and data processing infrastructure. It is flatly denied by some U.S. government security officials, by Apple and Amazon, and, according to a story by Jason Koebler, Joseph Cox, and Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai on Motherboard, by most major U.S. telecoms companies…

Motherboard has reached out to 10 major US telecom providers, and the four biggest telecoms in the US have denied to Motherboard that they were attacked: In an email, T-Mobile denied being the one mentioned in the Bloomberg story. Sprint said in an email that the company does not use SuperMicro equipment, and an AT&T spokesperson said in an email that “these devices are not a part of our network, and we are not affected.” A Verizon spokesperson said: “Verizon’s network is not affected.”

A CenturyLink spokesperson also denied that the company is the subject of Bloomberg’s new story. A Cox Communications spokesperson said in an email: ”The telecom company referenced in the story is NOT us." Comcast also said it’s not the company in the Bloomberg story.

Charter Communications and Frontier Communications, two of California’s biggest telecoms companies, aren’t on the not me list, but that might be the result of poor response by their press relations people or, less likely, because they weren’t contacted by Motherboard.

Although Bloomberg’s stories have been refuted by U.K. intelligence agencies, their U.S. counterparts have been silent, as is common practice. Which leaves the door open to uncomfortable speculation: they could have discovered the backdoors and be taking advantage of them too. And if they can, so can other national governments and criminal organisations. Unfortunately, U.S. government spy agencies put a higher priority on their own access to cracked systems, than on defending public cyberspace.

Until this mystery is solved, we’ll have to cope with the possibility that our data centers and telecoms networks are hopelessly compromised.

No longer a project, Loon leaves the nest to fly, or flop, as a business

by Steve Blum • ,

Loon is ready to fly on its own. In a blog post, the head of Alphabet’s X division, Astro Teller, says that the high altitude balloon-based broadband company, and a drone based sister project, Wing, are leaving the incubator…

Today, unlike when they started as X projects, Loon and Wing seem a long way from crazy — and thanks to their years of hard work and relentless testing in the real world, they’re now graduating from X to become two new independent businesses within Alphabet: Loon and Wing.

As Other Bets, they’ll continue the missions they started here at X. Loon will work with mobile network operators globally to bring internet access to unconnected and under-connected people around the world. Wing is building a drone delivery system to improve the speed, cost, and environmental impact of transporting goods, and an unmanned-traffic management platform to safely route drones through our skies.

Loon’s business model remains focused on providing back haul capacity to mobile carriers in rural area, and regions that remote beyond rural. It finished a proof of concept run in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, and by all accounts managed to make things better. It wasn’t a cosmic solution to Puerto Rico’s connectivity problems, but it did fill the sort of gaps that its business plan is targeting, and demonstrated that it’s a useful tool in disaster recovery operations, according to an article in Ars Technica by Nathan Mattise…

“We usually think about [Project Loon] in places with no existent network, but when a network goes out, people who were served become underserved,” says Sal Candido, a director and principal engineer at X…“In the future, being prepared for these kind of things is something we hadn’t really thought of, but it could be done in advance as a contingency.”

The big question that’s still to be answered is whether the willingness of mobile operators to pay matches the cost of Loon’s bandwidth. That’s what will determine if it’s a sustainable business, rather than ad hoc networking tool.

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

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

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.