by Jean-Louis Gassée
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Revelation or revelator?  I’m referring to the iPhone, of course. We’ll quickly skip over the revelation part, enough praise (and some well-deserved barbs) already.  Instead, we’ll look at the light the iPhone sheds on the cellular infrastructure and on the culture of operators.
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The symptoms: spotty 3G coverage, bad reception, ‘bandwidth’ (meaning download speed) far from the “twice as fast” claims, poor battery performance.  To say nothing of software reliability complaints.  Add Apple’s lofty claims and relative inexperience in cellular telephony and you get a nice target.  As the French like to say, the higher the monkey climbs, the more people see his… mistakes.
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This being America, we now have three lawsuits broadly accusing Apple and AT&T of false claims. At the same time, the chattering classes, read the blogosphere and the aging MSM (Mainstream Media), promptly filled up with comments, explanations and accusations.  More confusion than light.
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Apple first clammed up in its usual imperious style but, soon, emails from Dear Leader himself leaked out.  Steve Jobs replied a couple of customers, acknowledged the contribution of software bugs to battery and connection issues and promised fixes in September.  All along, the company refrained from implicating carriers.
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However, as more facts emerged, we began to see a different picture.
The magazine Wired conducted a nationwide study that pointed the finger at the carrier, AT&T.  Then, a Swedish lab took it upon itself to test the iPhone reception (story on Cnet and in the Göteborg Posten), comparing it to leading 3G handsets.  The result?  With regards to radio performance, the 3G iPhone was indistinguishable from Nokia or Sony Ericsson handsets.
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Then, it transpired that Orange, in France, was ‘throttling’ the 3G iPhone. Throttling?  Here the word refers to Orange deliberately limiting the transfer speed, the bandwidth provided to iPhones to 384Kbps (Kilobits per second), which seems to be the ‘legal’ minimum of the ITU (International Telecommunications Union), not the 1Mbps or more ‘sold’ by the carriers.  [I went to the ITU site and entered 3G in the Search field.  The answer is: “The component required for this action is not available”.  This in both Simple and Advanced search.  Fortunately, Google provides the usual abundance of links and things become even less clear.  Regarding the 384Kbps number, some interpret it as the maximum rate for slowly moving devices, such as a handset carried by a walking user.  Others quote the IMT-2000 standard and ominously remind us: “The total max bandwidth of 2.4 Mbits are to be shared by all users within a single cell sector. One cell normally has 3 sectors to cover the full 360 degrees area around a cell antenna tower”.
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Confused?  Let’s step back a bit.
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When we look again at the Orange item, one implication becomes explicit: the network knows it is serving an iPhone.  A dialog, a protocol sets up the connection, identifies the phone/customer for billing, etc…  The “etc” part is very sophisticated as it allows the network to regulate the phone’s radio power, for example, no need to “shout” if the cell tower is near.  This, in turn, points to the ‘client’ side, to the iPhone’s role in the protocol.  Hence the acknowledgement by Apple of connection and power management bugs, hopefully corrected by this past Friday’s 2.1 update.  (I installed it and have nothing useful to report yet – which could be good news.)
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On the carrier side, a set of facts emerges. To begin with, carriers weren’t prepared for the iPhone, because it isn’t really a phone, it is an Internet device with a phone thrown in.  As noted here before, Google found that the iPhone provided 50 times more search traffic than the next smartphone down the list.  In the past, carriers touted smartphones as having browsing and multimedia messaging capabilities but these were hard enough to use to be hardly used.  The iPhone comes in with the first real smartphone browser and the naïve customers use it.  So much so that the network buckles under the load or, in Orange’s case, tries to survive by spreading the penury.  (In recent statements Orange appeared to promise to be back at 1.5Mbps “in September”.) See also how iTunes wireless download are only allowed with a WiFi connection, not 3G.
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So far, carriers have managed to maintain an oligopoly, a market with a very small number of suppliers. Economic theory holds an oligopoly suppresses real competition and leads to various forms of implicit or even active price fixing, as we’ve seen in France.  The lower level of competition allows carriers to delay investments and ‘milk’ their network (and their customers) just like the good old cable networks operators.  In downtown Palo Alto, the birthplace of Silicon Valley, there still are ‘white spots’, places where you have No Service.
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In keeping with the carriers’ culture, we see a combination of small print and outright misrepresentations of services.  Summarizing: your payment is mandatory, our performance is optional.  No wonder ‘trial lawyers’ are rising to this tempting occasion, this after courts started taking another look at the dreaded
mandatory arbitration clauses
carriers use to prevent disgruntled customers from seeking redress in court.
This is unfortunate.  Cellular networks are wonderful, when they work.  The voice and data services they strive to provide make our lives more productive, more fun and emotionally more connected.  (I know, there are also terribly annoying and dehumanizing uses too.)  For the technically curious, wireless networks are both admirable and ugly, an ever evolving patchwork of high-tech bits and pieces striving to appear seamless.
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We can only hope regulatory authorities will pay more attention to the gap between what carriers promise (and ruthlessly charge for) and what they deliver. As for the tall markitecture tales of 4G networks, today they’re just a way to move the debate away from today’s shortcomings by touting a bright future. –JLG
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