Tuesday, May 31, 2011

More Telephone History (1878-1918)

A couple of weeks ago I pulled a piece out of a book I wrote about ten years ago titled Introduction to Telecommunications Networks. In that post I described the first year in the development of telephone technology. As a follow-up to that post, here's some of the major technical breakthroughs that happened between 1878 and 1918.

Bell sets up the first operator switching exchange and at the same time, Western Union Telegraph Company (http://www.westernunion.com) decided to use its existing national telegraph wire network to set up its own telephone company. Bell quickly sued Western Union and Western Union settled out of court, selling its network to Bell.

Henry Hummings in England gets a British patent for a variable resistance telephone transmitter that used finely ground carbon. The carbon transmitter solved many of the early problems Bell had trying to use liquid and electromagnetic transmitters. The carbon transmitter also used a voice cone attached to a diaphragm.

The diaphragm, which was attached to a conductor, vibrated with sound waves and caused the closed container of ground carbon to compress and uncompress changing resistance in the same way the liquid transmitters did.

American Telephone and Telegraph Company (http://www.att.com) was formed to provide long distance telephone service, connecting small Bell regional telephone franchises.

AT&T buys Henry Hummings’ ground carbon variable resistance telephone transmitter patent rights.

Thomas Edison modified Henry Hummings’ finely ground carbon transmitter by using larger carbon granules. The larger granules created more current paths with sound wave compression and therefore allowed more current to flow in conjunction with the compression. The larger granules also did not pack as tightly over time like the finely ground carbon in Hummings’ transmitter. When they did pack, usually lightly hitting the transmitter on a hard surface would loosen them up.

AT&T reorganizes, assuming the business and property of American Bell and becomes the parent company of the Bell System.

Siemens (http://www.siemens.com) first tests dialtone on the public switched telephone network in a German city.

AT&T patents an anti-sidetone solution for telephone receiver and transmitters. This technology allowed talkers to more easily adjust their voice volume when speaking into the telephone transmitter.

I'll continue with more history in a later post.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wireless Spectrum Auctions - Is There a Better Way?

I've been reading a lot lately about the possibility of voluntary spectrum auctions in the US. These voluntary auctions would be a little different than what's been done in the past. In previous auctions, all revenue gained has gone directly to the Treasury Department. The proposed voluntary auctions would allow the current owner of a piece of spectrum to keep a portion of the revenue from the sale. For the FCC to hold voluntary auctions, Congress would need to change current spectrum auction regulations.

Why is spectrum so critical now? There is is only so much capacity any communications channel can transmit and, with devices becoming more and more complex, bandwidths must keep rapidly rising.  To give some perspective on growth, Network Solutions predicts a growth of 30 times current usage in the next 5 years. Broadbandbreakfast.com breaks it down like this - a Motorola Razor (introduced in the fourth quarter of 2004) on the average uses about 8 megabytes (MB) of data per month. Compare that to a typical smartphone (like an iPhone) that uses approximately 900 MB a month and an average tablet (like an iPad) that uses 2 gigabytes per month. You can see where this is going....

Is there a more efficient way to sell existing spectrum? Perhaps. George Mason Law School Professor Thomas Hazlett has been questioning the FCC incentive auction plan for a while now. Back in December 2010, Hazlett was a panelist at a Telecommunications and Media Forum sponsored by the International Institute of Communications in Washington, D.C., At that time he recommended the FCC take a look at spectrum overlay licenses and allow parties to negotiate private agreements, rather than allowing the government to act as a middleman.

What does this mean? Here's piece of an article from The Journal of Economic Perspective (Volume 22, Number 1—Winter 2008) written by Hazlett.

Consider a television broadcasting service. Video transmitted over-the-air can cheaply deliver valuable content to households, but that simultaneously makes it difficult for another video signal to be transmitted on the same channel to standard TV sets in the area. The U.S. analog standard adopted by the FCC in 1941 delivers one program in a 6 MHz band. The same frequency space can, using digital formats, deliver five to ten pictures of similar clarity or, alternatively, one or two programs in high-definition. Alternatively, a single 6 MHz channel allocated TV band spectrum could economically be used to supply, say, broadband service connecting computer users to the Internet. The wireless broadband option is effectively eliminated, however, under the digital TV standard adopted in the United States, where TV stations (to retain their licenses) must transmit high- powered video broadcasts across the entire 6 MHz band.

Since transmission rules are fixed by law, a TV broadcaster will tend to emit too much power and to underutilize spectrum-saving techniques. Were the broadcaster to enjoy frequency ownership, on the contrary, it would profit by investing in improved receivers (allowing, say, both an over-the-air TV signal and two-way Internet access in the same band) or substituting TV signal delivery by cable and satellite.
The Hazlett Plan sure makes a lot of sense to me.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Will AT&T Light Up LTE Next Month?

Lots of rumors going around - last week IntoMobile claimed AT&T will launch their LTE network in New York City as early as June 30, with plans to offer LTE in Los Angeles on July 24. If it is true this is pretty interesting since AT&T has been running about a year behind Verizon with 4G rollout plans.

To this point in time, AT&T has been saying they would get a few markets up and running with LTE in the second half of 2011, with a complete upgrade of all markets by the end of 2013. The company's primary technology pitch - in response to Verizon's plans to have LTE upgrades in 175 markets by the end of 2011 - has been all about an enhanced 3G service called HSPA+ (sort of 3G on steroids - up to 56 Mbit/s downstream and 22 Mbit/s upstream) getting them over the hump until LTE rolls out next year.

There's also been some rumors that AT&T has told FCC regulators they would speed up  LTE deployment if the T-Mobile merger is approved.

I stress - these are all just rumors!

The First Year Of The Telephone

About ten years ago I wrote a book titled Introduction to Telecommunications Networks. About half the book described how the now rapidly disappearing public switched telephone network (PSTN) worked. I haven't picked up the book in a while but a recent flip through has certainly brought back some memories. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the history. Here's how it all started.

Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, another inventor competing with Bell, are both scrambling to get their voice transmission inventions patented.

February 14, 1876
On this day Alexander Graham Bell’s father in law, attorney Gardiner Hubbard, delivered a patent application from Bell to the U.S. Patent for a device that transmits voice frequencies across wires.
Approximately three hours later on the same day Elisha Gray filed a caveat (a formal notice of an invention Gray hoped to patent) with the U.S. Patent Office describing a device that also transmitted voice frequencies across wires.
March 10, 1876
Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson demonstrate a working telephone system but not without controversy. When Bell’s original patent and Gray’s caveat, both filed on February 14, were reviewed it was determined the device Bell described would not have worked while Gray’s would have. It was speculated that Bell had copied parts of Gray’s design. In Gray’s caveat he had detailed the use of a variable resistance transmitter which was used to produce a transmitter signal robust enough for the receiver to hear. Bell had been struggling to solve this same problem. In Bell’s patent application he made what appeared to be a last minute handwritten notation about the use of a variable resistance transmitter. People speculated that Bell had found out about Gray’s caveat and learned of Gray’s use of a variable resistance transmitter and, at the last minute before filing, Bell made a note on the patent application about using the new transmitter.
The variable resistance transmitter demonstrated by Bell on March 10, 1876 used a voice cone attached to a diaphragm. Also attached to the diaphragm was a wire that was emersed in a metal container of acidic solution.
The user talked into the voice cone, voice sound waves caused the diaphragm to vibrate and the wire moved up and down in the acidic solution. As the wire moved up and down in the solution the resistance between the wire and the metal container changed causing the DC current to vary in proportion to the variation in sound waves.
The controversy between Bell and Gray lead to years of litigation to the level of the United States Supreme Court where a split decision gave Bell the patent for the telephone entitled Improvements in Telegraphy.
It took a little over a year for Bell to acquire and convince his wealthy father-in-law, Gardinar Hubbard, to finance the Bell Telephone Company and fund the building of the voice network infrastructure.

It's interesting to look back at the legal back and forth between Bell and Gray. It reminds me a lot of what we're seeing between Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, the Winklevoss Twins, Wayne Chang,  Paul Ceglia.... and others.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Antique On My Desk

Well..... maybe it is not an antique but it sure feels like it sometimes. It's a beige Nortel Meridian M2616 telephone manufactured in 1999. It's multi-line with a built in speaker phone and has a small optional LCD display that shows some basic information (date, time, caller ID, time on call, etc). It's got 16 programmable keys that can be expanded to 60 with something called a key expansion module.

Do I use it? Occasionally. It's actually got a very nice handset with great sound quality.  When I've got long calls scheduled it is much more physically comfortable and easier on my ears than my cell phone. It's also nice for conference calls. I don't use any of the programmable keys. What does it lack? Lots of features I've come to depend on from services like Google Voice or Skype, including:
  • Voice messages going directly to my email inbox.
  • Voice message transcriptions - which are searchable.
  • Sharing voice messages via email.
  • Being able to archive and backup a voice message as an audio file and save it in a folder.
  • Blocking specific callers.
  • One number for all of my phones and number porting. For example, I can make my mobile number my Google Voice number.
  • The ability to use my computer as my phone any where, any place, any time.
I can't do any of these with my desk phone but can do all of them using an Internet connection and my MacBook Air or any other connected computer. In my Microsoft/Skype post yesterday I questioned why we still have both a computer and phone (separate independent devices) on most of our desks. Still wondering. Desk phones sure look like antiquated voice only devices.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Did Microsoft Get a Good Deal For Skype?

There's been  lot of discussion about Microsoft's agreement yesterday (May 10, 2011) to acquire Skype for $8.5 billion. Microsoft will acquire all of Skype's technology and incorporate Skype as a division of the company. $8.5 billion sounds like a lot of money but is it really? Let's take a look at the history of Skype (portions coutesy of Wikipedia) before we look at some numbers.

  • Skype was established in 2003 by Scandinavians Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, who had earlier success with the launch of the music file-sharing service Kazaa.
  • In October 2005, eBay purchased Skype for $2.6 billion. At that time Skype had 54 million members in 225 countries and territories and was adding approximately 150,000 new users each day. EBay planned to use Skype to allow buyers and sellers to speak with each other.
  • The number of registered Skype users reached 100 million in April 2006.
  • In October 2006, Skype 2.0 for Mac was released, the first full release of Skype with video for Macintosh.
  • In December 2006, Skype announced a new pricing structure, with connection fees for all SkypeOut calls that allow Skype users to call land-line phones.
  • Over the next couple of years subscribers continued to grow. In April 2008, Skype launched Skype for SIP, a service aimed at business users. At that time around 35 per cent of Skype's users were business users.
  • In 2009 Skype was adding about 380,000 new users each day. Also in April 2009, eBay announced plans to spin off Skype through an initial public offering in 2010.
  • In 2010, Telegeography estimated that Skype accounted for 25 per cent of the World's International Calling Minutes.
  • In November 2010, eBay completed the sale of 70% of Skype to a consortium comprising Silver Lake Partners, CPPIB, Andreessen Horowitz for approximately $2 billion, with the original founders valuing the entire business at USD $2.75 billion.
  • May 10, 2011 - Microsoft agrees to acquire Skype for $8.5 billion.

Now let's crunch a few numbers to try and figure out if Microsoft got a good deal.
  • In October 2005 when eBay purchased Skype for $2.6 billion, there were 54 million members. Doing the math:
($2.6 billion) / (54 million members) = $48.15 per member
  • In November 2010, Skype had approximately the same number of members it has today - about 663 million and the founders estimated the company was worth $2.75 billion. More math:
($2.75 billion) / (663 million members) = $4.20 per member
  • Yesterday, Microsoft agreed to pay $8.5 billion for Skype that currently has approximately 663 million members. And even more math:
($8.5 billion) / (663 million members) = $12.82 per member

Did eBay overpay back in 2005 at $48.15 per member? It sure looks like it. Did investors get a heck of a deal in November last year at $4.20 per member? You bet they did. Is Microsoft overpaying now? Ultimately it will depend on execution - what Microsoft does with Skype - so time will tell. I often look at the telephone on my desk (I refer to it as my "antique") and wonder why we're not seeing phone services more tightly integrated into our computers - like we see today with our mobile devices. I'll write more about this in a later post.

So back to that question - I think Microsoft got themselves a pretty nice deal.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Join Us July 25-28 in San Francisco for the HI-TEC Conference

The HI-TEC conference, July 25–28 at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, is right around the corner. If you are a secondary or post-secondary educator, technician, trade organization member, or industry professional wanting to update your knowledge and skills in advanced technological education, this conference is for you.

The conference schedule/program (17 workshops, 3 tours, 60+ main conference sessions) is available at www.highimpact-tec.org/conference-sessions-at-a-glance.php. Dr. Moira Gunn, host of National Public Radio’s Tech Nation, and Hans Meeder, Executive Director of the Institute for 21st Century Leadership, will be keynote speakers.

Go to www.highimpact-tec.org for hotel/travel details, registration information, and things to do in San Francisco. The early bird registration deadline is May 31, so don't delay. Also, be sure to forward the Program Preview to partners and colleagues.

For questions about the conference, contact Sheila Wilson at swilson@cord.org. For questions about the program, contact Tom McGlew, Program Chair, at tom.mcglew@domail.maricopa.edu.

We hope you'll join us in beautiful San Francisco for this exciting professional development opportunity. Bring your family too. There's much to see and do in San Francisco.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Simulation and Modeling in Technology Education (SMTE) Project

This is a temporary video for the Knowledge and Skills Builder level 4A - the "Column Strength Test Challenge" in the Survival Master game for STEM learning. In this level, the learner advances through the level by selecting columns that will support dead loads.

You can follow along via the project website at http://gaming2learn.org/

What Keeps Me Blogging

Our National Science Foundation (NSF) funded ICT Center is participating in another NSF funded project called Synergy.  The Synergy project focuses on equipping the leaders of NSF funded Advanced Technological Education (ATE) centers with the tools and resources needed to bring successful projects to scale.  The goal is to have a greater impact on advanced technological education at community colleges across the country

As part of Synergy, our ICT Center is building a replicable new media and search engine optimization (SEO) model that will aid centers and projects in further dissemination of their work.  This model focuses on using new and emerging web-based social media technologies including blogging, micro-blogging, audio and video to reach out regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Since our project’s focus involves the use of social media I thought it would be interesting to tell the story of how I started blogging. My first entry was posted on May 7, 2005 and titled MentorLinks Deadline June 10, 2005. According to that first blog, the site would be be a place to post announcements, give technical updates and keep you posted on what NCTT (what we were called before the ICT Center) is up to.

To be honest, it was an experiment to try and move us away from disseminating our NSF Center work using traditional newsletter and email blast methods. On May 18 and June 7 of 2005 I posted a couple more entries, one on something called The Onion Router (Tor) and another on MIT Media Labs plans to produce a $100 laptop. I was not getting a lot of traffic (basically none) and going back and forth in my mind back then - should I continue or let the blog go. Everything changed for me a few days after June 10, 2005 when I posted my fourth entry. Here’s how.

Back on June 6, 2005 a 36 year-old friend, academic partner and great guy from Midlands Technical College in Columbia, South Carolina was killed in a motorcycle accident. His name was Mark Anthony Wildermuth (he liked to be called Mark Anthony). It was heartbreaking and I remember thinking I needed to do something in honor of Mark. I decided to write a short blog about him and his amazing (but short) life. Here’s that blog post from June 10, 2005.

In Memory of Mark Anthony Wildermuth
Posted June 10, 2005 by Gordon Snyder

The last two weeks have been sad ones for those of us who knew Mark Wildermuth from Midlands Technical College in Columbia, SC. Mark had a bad motorcycle accident two weekends ago and passed away Monday, June 6.

Mark had quite a life in his 36 years. Many of us did not know he graduated from the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY, in 1991. At West Point, he was Brigade boxing champion in his weight class, competed on the Army's intercollegiate boxing team and was Sandhurst military training company captain. After West Point he had a well-decorated Army career, rising to the rank of Major, serving in Korea and in several stateside posts. He was Ranger, Airborne and Expert Infantryman qualified.

I first met Mark five years ago when he started at Midlands and was working to create a Telecommunications degree program. In September 2001 Midlands, with Mark as PI, received a grant from the NSF to adapt and implement the NCTT telecommunications education program and our formal relationship was launched. Mark and others including Keith Quigley worked hard to build an exceptional program and over the grant adapted the NCTT curriculum to include a pre-telecommunications technologies component delivered by secondary teachers to local SC high schools. Laboratories were designed to house the appropriate equipment, and Midlands ensured the ongoing operation and continued support for the work. In addition to articulated course work in telecommunications in local high schools, the project facilitated the professional growth and development of college and high school instructors as well as recruiting, retaining, graduating, and placing students in good jobs.

Two years ago, with Mark's leadership, Midlands became one of the original NCTT Regional Partners. Mark was an active participant in the NCTT group, always willing to share his technical and leadership skills. He also like to have fun and could always get us laughing. Marks work can be found at: http://www.midlandstech.edu/telecommunications/default.html. A wonderful person who I will miss greatly.

Midlands Technical College has established a scholarship in his memory. If you wish to contribute, send an email to me at: gsnyder@stcc.edu

I was choked up writing this and still get choked up when I read it now. I heard from several people after posting that had searched his name including his ex-wife, army buddies, racquetball players (I heard after he was quite the “B” level player), people from the motorcycle club he had recently joined and his mother who took what I had written, printed it and distributed it at his memorial service. My entry was also reposted as a eulogy to Mark at Westpoint.org.

I learned more - Mark was Sidney High School's (Ohio) Class of 1987 President and played football, basketball, baseball, and tennis. Rumor even has it he kicked a winning field goal for an Ohio football state championship.

While at West Point, his classmates knew him by several nicknames including "Muth", Tony, Mark, "Wilderbeast" and "Mattresseater". When he was stationed in Korea, his buddies knew him as "Moot".He had written and published a book on how to survive Army basic training.

He was riding a Honda  VTX1800 motorcycle and I received a heart breaking email from a guy who he had played racquetball with and had a similar bike. Mark had walked out of the gym with the guy after playing a few months prior to the accident and admired his bike. He liked it so much Mark went out and bought one. It was tough to to read the guy’s email - he was so upset and felt guilty in some way.

Mark’s entry was a spark for me - I quickly realized the potential of posting optimized content online where it can be crawled and picked up by the search engines. I’ve continued to post regularly for almost 6 years now about mostly technical topics related to ICT with the occasional fun post - an August 2010 post titled The Last End of Summer Haircut? comes to mind!

It has been a wonderful experience and I like to think Mark got me started and his memory always gives me a little push (he was a boxer so maybe it’s more like a punch) when things get busy and I get tight on time.

Thanks Mark. It's been almost six years and we miss you buddy. Be Thou At Peace.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ilisagvik College - Alaska North Slope - August 2000

Yesterday I was pulling some old blog posts off one of our retired web servers and came across a photo set from a trip to the North Slope of Alaska made with representatives from The American Association of Community Colleges and Microsoft. At the time, we were working with the AACC and Microsoft on a program called Working Connections.

Working Connections was a successful partnership between Microsoft, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), and a network of 63 community colleges across the country. The goal of Working Connections was to help address the acute shortage of qualified workers in information technology jobs. One of our partner schools was Ilisagvik College in Barrow. If you're not sure where Barrow is, look at a map of Alaska and find the Northernmost point - that's Barrow! Like most of the United States, the North Slope was dealing with a pretty serious IT workforce shortage at the time and we were working with the College to help build academic programs to help address the shortage.

It was an interesting time to be on the North Slope and I've done some reflecting back after looking at the pictures. Here's some of the things I remember in no particular order.
  •  Ilisagvik College is the only tribally controlled college in Alaska and is sanctioned by the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope (ICAS) tribal government.
  • It was cold, even in August the temperature was only in the 30's.
  • The College served 7 villages on the North Slope with no connecting roads. The only access was by bush plane.
  • It never got dark and the sun would spin in a circle overhead as the day went on. The tundra is flat with no trees or other landmarks and it was easy to lose your sense of direction.       
  • People were extremely friendly and welcoming.
  • The IT worker shortage was magnified on the North Slope and it was hard to get people who were not from the area to stay if they decided to give it a try. With the severely cold and dark winters it was hard for non-natives to adjust with most leaving (if I recall correctly) after less than six months.
  • Polar bears were a constant danger. As one native Alaskan told me - the bears had figured out a long time ago that humans were tasty and easy to catch.
  • The students, faculty and administrators were smart, dedicated and focused. I was especially impressed with their respect for each other, the ocean, the land and the wildlife.
  • Most of the people we met who had been there for a while had what looked like burn mark scars on their necks. These were from cold zippers causing freezer burns on their skin in the winter.
  • Satellite TV was just coming to the North Slope in the summer of 2000.
  • I did not bring a laptop computer and my cell phone was incredibly expensive to use on the North Slope. When I called home I used a landline and a pre-paid calling card. The satellite delay made conversation difficult.
  • We also got over to Wainwright by bush plane. Our pilot was only in his teens but one of the best we were told. Wainwright is the 3rd largest city on the Norht slope with a population of 546 people and probably just about as many polar bears!
  • I took pictures with my old Minolta film-based SLR. No digital!
Most of our time was spent in meetings at the college but we did get a chance to get out after. It was always a great time to take photos outdoors because it never got dark! Here's that photo set from the trip.

Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000
Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000
Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000
Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000Ilisagvik College - North Slope, Alaska. August 2000
Working Connections, a set on Flickr.

The pictures that include trees were taken in Anchorage. I wonder how much the way of life on the North Slope has changed over the past 11 years.