Friday, December 28, 2012

STEM Education: Preparing for the Jobs of the Future

Back in April 2012, the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee published an interesting (and upsetting) report titled STEM Education: Preparing for the Jobs of the Future. I find this report particularly interesting because it was prepared by an economic committee and not an education based committee. As a father of two STEM women and someone who has focused a large part of his career on STEM education, I found the Why Are We Falling Short in STEM section particularly disturbing...... not because I disagree with the findings but because (unfortunately based on my observations) I agree. Here's a list of what I find most disturbing as quoted from the report:
  • Science and technology curriculums are often thin in K-12 education, and may not be enough to provide students with a solid foundation in STEM upon which to build.
  • Part of the problem is that it is challenging to attract and retain STEM-trained individuals to teach STEM subjects at the K-12 level when higher wages and employment opportunities outside of the education sector make working in a STEM profession an attractive alternative.
  • Furthermore, while the quality of math and science teaching is the greatest factor in improving student achievement in STEM fields, not enough  K-12 math and science teachers have  hands-on experience working in STEM.
  • Teachers may also lack an educational background in STEM. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that 36 percent of middle school science teachers and approximately 30 percent of middle school math teachers lack in-field training.
  • Finally, there is the matter of culture. While not easy to quantify, to the extent that math and science are not considered “cool” among image-conscious high school students, inevitably many talented young people will be turned off from pursuing degrees and careers in STEM fields. Women may be particularly  unlikely to pursue STEM as a result of gender and cultural norms.
Lack of a science and math foundation at an early age, underprepared teachers, cultural issues.... can it be fixed? I encourage everyone to read the report.

Monday, December 17, 2012

First Person Shooter Games

I've been debating - do I write this post or not since Friday evening. Newtown, CT is just heartbreaking -  so many others are so much better at expressing feelings and emotions with words than I am. It's all still as confused and upset as I was Friday around 12:30 when I first heard the news something had happened. 

Yesterday (Sunday) morning I watched the political shows and there was a lot of discussion about a "common thread" profile with these types of incidents. Specifically:
  • Mentally unbalanced
  • High intelligence
  • Computer expertise
  • High estimation of potential that gets damaged in life prior
  • Hero in their own mind - happiest moment of their life during shooting
  • Lost in a black hole of their own festering
  • History of graphic video game violence with a passion for shoot to kill video games
  • Access to weapons - specifically assault type weapons like the ones used in violent video games
On Saturday I posted up a link in Facebook to a blog post on First Person Shooter (FPS) games written Thursday, the day before the shooting in CT, titled America's Love Affair With the First Person Shooter and the Rise of "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2". The post finishes with this paragraph:
The FPS genre is a perfect reflection of our national identity. It has become as American as celebrity worship and gaming itself. Like it or not, you have to admit that emptying a clip into some stranger's face could become a new American tradition. And how new is it really? After all, this is the nation that gabe the world cowboys, gangsters, and Rambo. The fact is that the FPS genre will be with us far into the life cycles of the next-gen consoles and beyond. Celebrity and mere mortals, athlete and accountants, rappers and high school students—there is no one type of FPS enthusiast anymore. It has become a vehicle where ordinary players can become professionals in the realm of eSports, attaining their own measure of celebrity in the process. Regardless of what critics may think of the content of these games, it's time to accept the fact the FPS genre has become our new national pastime. So why not just relax and heed Biggie Smalls' immortal words of advice: stay low and keep firing. 
This was written the day before the shooting. I encourage you to read the entire post and form your own opinions.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Watching What You Do While You Watch TV

Verizon recently filed a patent application that would target television ads using real time information collected by infrared cameras and microphones in you DVR. This is wild stuff - here's some examples of how this system would work right out of the filed document:
  • if detection facility 104 determines that a user is exercising (e.g., running on a treadmill, doing aerobics, lifting weights, etc.), advertising facility 106 may select an advertisement associated with exercise in general, a specific exercise being performed by the user, and/or any other advertisement (e.g., an advertisement for health food) that may be intended for people who exercise. 
  • if detection facility 104 detects that a user is playing with a dog, advertising facility 106 may select an advertisement associated with dogs (e.g., a dog food commercial, a flea treatment commercial, etc.). 
  • if detection facility 104 detects one or more words spoken by a user (e.g., while talking to another user within the same room or on the telephone), advertising facility 106 may utilize the one or more words spoken by the user to search for and/or select an advertisement associated with the one or more words. 
  • if detection facility 104 detects that a couple is arguing/fighting with each other, advertising facility 106 may select an advertisement associated marriage/relationship counseling. 
  • if detection facility 104 detects a particular object (e.g., a Budweiser can) within a user's surroundings, advertising facility 106 may select an advertisement associated with the detected object (e.g., a Budweiser commercial). 
  •  if detection facility 104 detects a mood of a user (e.g., that the user is stressed), advertising facility 106 may select an advertisement associated with the detected mood (e.g., a commercial for a stress-relief product such as aromatherapy candles, a vacation resort, etc.).
The image posted is also from the patent application and shows the detection zone. 

Pets, people, conversations, moods, beer cans?? I don't think this is something I'd want in my home.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

SNOWBALLEXPRESS.ORG the charity for the children of our fallen military heroes

Yesterday (11/30) I flew from Connecticut to Dallas for a meeting. At the Hartford airport gate I noticed two women and a young girl that was maybe 11. They stood out a bit - I could tell they were not experienced travelers and not the returning tired and frazzled business people you typically see on a Friday afternoon flight from the Northeast to Dallas.  If it was a flight to Orlando it would have made a little more sense......

I also noticed the American Airlines gate agents were holding small American flags and there were  hand-made signs on the wall by the jetway entrance welcoming three Snowball Express families. These people were allowed to board first so I knew something was up. Once we were all boarded the flight attendant announced these were families of fallen military service members traveling to Dallas-Fort Worth for 5 days.

When we got off the plane at DFW the airport was full of families and volunteers wearing blue Snowball Express t-shirts. I did a little more research online and found out there were 1,700 coming to the event from all over the country. During the five days the itinerary includes the Dallas Children's Parade, Six Flags, a rodeo, concerts, the Fort Worth Stockyards and a whole bunch more.

It was sad and exciting to see the families in DFW. Lots of kids that looked like they were connecting with a lot of old friends. I'm still thinking about that little girl and what her story was. Did she lose a mom or a dad? A heavy price to pay.

Snowball Express has been going for seven years now, starting in Southern California in 2006 and moving to the Dallas area in 2009. A worthy charity for volunteering and/or a donation.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Global Mobile Stats - Google Our Mobile Planet

In a project called Our Mobile Planet, Google's been collecting mobile stats from 27 countries. Dan Swinhoe from IDG Connect Global has picked this data apart and written a very nice post titled The App Revolution: How this Varies By Market. Here's a few interesting tidbits from Swinhoe's excellent piece:

  • Japan is the most ‘appy', but Germany is amongst the most keen to pay.
  • According to 148apps, the Apple store has 719,452 apps available, and to buy them all would set you back a hefty $1,307,715.69.
  • Angry Birds Star Wars is currently dominating the App store charts.
  • By the end of the year, over 45 billion apps will have been downloaded - around 15 billion of those from Google, but you can expect Android to take the majority share in 2013 due to the sheer number of devices being sold using the search engine's OS. 
  • Microsoft's own appstore is yet to make significant inroads in any market but, depending on the success of its Surface tablet this could well change after Christmas.
  • Custom-app building continues to grow, today's estimates putting the average cost of development at around $30-40,000
  • According to a report by Appaccelerator, Apple has become the chosen platform for enterprise app development, with 53.2% of developers picking iOS for corporate app development.
  • In all the charts, no matter what system or country, games feature heavily in both free and paid for.
  • While things such as social media and certain business software are now fully-apped, other areas are still a while off. For example media outlets are still struggling to cope with apps (web is still a struggle for many), while the largest programs - CAD/CAM and other large engineering/graphics programs simply are too big and complex for apps and mobile devices. At least for now.
Be sure to check out Dan's full post linked here and also take a look at Google's Our Mobile Project - all pretty interesting stuff.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wireless and VoIP Services as Carrier of Last Resort?

The shift continues for the traditional telecommunications companies away from copper based voice and DSL data services to wireless and fiber. One of the road blocks that appears to be loosening are the  Carrier of Last Resort (COLR) rules for carriers.

COLR rules are currently set at the state level (not the Federal Communications Commission) and regulate that every American has access to telephones service along with other utilities like electricity and water. A number of states have either passed legislation or are considering legislation that would end traditional landline rules and allow these services to be replaced by wireless (cell) or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services. Bills have emerged in Mississippi, Kentucky, New Jersey and California. Ohio's Senate Bill 271 is a good example of legislation currently being reviewed by lawmakers to cut traditional landline services. 

Opponents to these changes argue landline elimination could increase phone bills, reduce quality of service and impact 911 service. AARP Ohio State Director Bill Sundenmeyer is quoted in a recent post at Community Broadband Networks saying:
... besides preserving social contact, land-line phones are needed to protect seniors' health and safety. For instance, some seniors use the phone line to transmit routine health information from equipment in their home to their doctor's office.They can make an evaluation of a person's heart and how's it working, of their lungs, etc. That information would be very difficult to transmit over a cell phone.
There's more. Even though the FCC has stayed out of COLR regulations, leaving them to individual states, AT&T submitted a letter to the FCC back in August asking the FCC to effectively reclassify the public switched telephone network as an "information service", effectively removing all PSTN regulations and obligations. What does this mean? I think Bruce Kushnick describes it pretty well over at the Huff Post Tech Blog:
This means that almost all of the remaining wires, networks or even the obligation to offer services over those wires and networks are all removed -- as much of this infrastructure is classified as "telecommunications". The Public Switched Telephone Networks, the utility, would suddenly be reclassified as an information service. Sayonara any telco rules, regulations and oh yes, your rights. Your service breaks... tough. Prices go up and there's no direct competition -- too bad. Networks weren't upgraded -- so what. Net Neutrality? Neutered.
I'm not sure where you live but I'm in a relatively rural area of a fairly populated state. I've only got one wireless provider option at my home unless I climb up to the very peak of my roof where I can usually catch one bar of another provider. After the 2011 Halloween snowstorm cell service was out for almost a week at my home while landline service did not go down. 

Wireless service is great when it works. Wireless as carrier of last resort - someday yes but not just yet. AT&T has opened a window and the FCC now has an opportunity to step up and put a logical transitional process in place. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Why Are My iPhone Text Messages Sometimes Blue and Sometimes Green?

Lately I've been getting this question a lot. Here's what's up.

Green messages on your iPhone use a voice text protocol called Short Message Service (SMS). SMS was developed way back in 1982 and designed to run on voice networks using a separate channel used for signaling. Technically SMS was easy to implement and, with the popularity of mobile phones, it became very popular really fast. Messages are limited in length 160 characters and as a result many of us have learned to abbreviate words using text-speak shorthand.

iMessage is different. It's Internet Protocol (IP) based and does not require a voice connection. You can use IP based text services like iMessage on cellular data networks along with WiFi networks and your computer.

Now here's the big advantage - you don't need a text message plan to send and receive iMessage based texts. You do need some kind of text message plan to send and receive SMS (green) messages.

When are messages green? Here's a few common scenarios:
  1. You or your friend have not updated your iPhone to iOS5
  2. You or your friend are not registered with Apple iMessage. 
  3. You or your friend are in a place where there is no cellular data signal but there is a voice network signal.
  4. You send a message to someone not on the same network as you and only one of you has an iPhone. For example, you've got an AT&T account and your friend has a Verizon Wireless account. If you both have iPhones and both have data connections iMessage will work cross-carrier. 
  5. You're on the same network but one of you has iMessage turned off. To turn iMessage on and off on your iPhone use Settings -> Messages -> iMessage On/Off
Is SMS sticking around? Not for long with "free" services like iMessage and this is rapidly becoming a problem for the providers. SMS has been a huge cash cow for wireless providers earning an estimated $114.6 billion in 2010.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sprint 4G LTE Comes to Massachusetts and Texas and Kansas.....

It's been a crazy month with a major National Science Foundation proposal submission deadline last week. To everyone who submitted (including us) - Good Luck!

I've been catching up on email the past few days and finally have time for a quick post. I've written here in the past about Sprint's planned and inevitable migration from WiMAX 4G services to LTE..... well it started today: 

Sprint Brings 4G LTE to Customers in New Bedford/Fall River, Mass.

Sprint Brings 4G LTE to Customers in Wichita Falls, Texas

And they're even starting in Chicago:

Sprint's plans are to get 115 locations up and running LTE in the next few months. Good news for Sprint and customers. Watch for ads/commercials to start.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Attenuation in Fiber Communications Systems

I'm teaching a fiber optics communications course this semester and - like just about every communications course - we started out talking about attenuation.

Attenuation is just a fancy word for loss. In any communications system you've got a certain amount of signal strength going in and a certain amount of signal strength coming out. If there is no amplification in a system there is always going to be loss and the output signal will always be weaker than the input signal.

In fiber systems attenuation is caused by three things:

  1. Absorption - Glass, whether it is fiber or the windows in your house, will always absorb a small amount of light going through it. The amount depends on the wavelength of light and what the glass is made of.
  2. Scattering - Atoms in glass cause a certain amount of scattering of light and scattered light will not emerge at the output.
  3. Leakage - Light will leak out of fiber, especially if the are a lot of bends in the fiber.
Fiber manufacturers typically provide specifications for all three of these, along with total attenuation per kilometer.

One of the primary goals in any communications system is to keep the attenuation to a minimum. Even so, there will always be a loss in signal intensity when comparing output power to input power. Calculating attenuation in a system is pretty simple. Attenuation is cumulative so basically you just add up the signal loss for each component in the system. Here's an example:

Question: A 50 km fiber run has been spec'd at 99% transmission per km. What percentage of light will emerge at the output?

The fiber run is transmitting 99% per km so after the first km 99% of the input signal will be available, after the second km, 99% of what's left after the first km will be available, etc. So we can say:
60.5% of the original input signal strength will emerge at the output.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

When Will Batteries Last A Week?

Like many of you, I'm constantly on the look-out for wall outlets. Meetings, airports, etc - if there is an outlet, I'm trying to find it. I've always fantasized about not having to carry around a charger. Wouldn't it be nice to get 40 hours out of a battery before having to recharge? It sure would! When will it happen? Lenovo has an interesting infogram out that take a look back and look forward when it comes to battery life technology.

Infographic showing when battery technology will advance far enough that a laptop battery will last a full work week.

Looks like we've got about ten years to go!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Memories of September 11, 2001

I first published this four years ago.

I was walking into the office when our technician told me a plane had hit one of the towers - he said "they think it was a small plane" and I did not think too much about it. 20 minutes or so later I was in a meeting and the same tech came in saying it was an airliner. We all left the meeting and turned on a small television in our lab. I also made sure I had a computer close by so I could watch email.......

At the time we were running a national listserv for a large group of community college faculty and administrators involved in a Working Connections grant with Microsoft and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). I've pulled out a few emails that came to the list. Here's one of the first from Mete at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC):

11:50 AM, 9/11/01
It is chaos here, but everybody at BMCC is OK. We are closed for the day and the roads/subways to in/out of Manhattan are blocked. I am in Brooklyn (home) now and the sky is dark from smoke/ash/soot. I have a feeling it is going to take a long time to recover from this one.
Hope all is well with everyone around the country,


BMCC is on Chambers Street, next to ground zero and a college building was damaged from the attack. Mete was on the subway on his way in when the attack started and I believe he walked home to Brooklyn.

Here's a reply message from Lynn at the AACC in Washington, DC::

12:05AM, 9/11/01
We are ok here, but our office is closing so people can try to get home. The smoke from the Pentagon is visible from our 4th floor conference room. Most of the federal offices have now closed, a couple of subway stations near the Pentagon are closed, the streets are crowded with people driving and walking home from downtown offices, and cars with sirens go by every 5 minutes or so. Folks who live near Capitol Hill are sticking around the office until things calm down in that part of town.


A flurry of emails went back and forth during the day from people all around the coutry. We were all worried, frustrated and upset about the attacks and our friends in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Here's a sample of the response from Paula at Richland College in Dallas:

11:50AM, 9/11/01
Thank you both for taking the time to provide us with an update of your safety. Our prayers are with you and all Americans during this tragedy. As in other states, thousands are donating blood. A major sports arena in Dallas has been setup as a blood donation facility. Churches are conducting special services. Please assist us to remain informed as to organizations/drives that are established that will provide direct support.


This came from Chris at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City a few days later:

10:50AM, 9/14/01
FIT is safe and sound and open for business but few classes are running normally. It is hard to describe the experience of walking south on Manhattan's avenues and seeing a column of smoke where the World Trade Towers should be. When the wind shifts, the smell of the fire comes to Chelsea with a light dusting of the cement that is ankle deep a few blocks away.

We are glad to hear that all are well at BMCC and in Washington.


Here's a followup from Mete that was also sent on September 14:

12:36AM, 9/14/01
The building that we (CIS) dept was suppose to move this Sept., (but did not because of delays) is quite damaged. They are using our main building as command/triage/morgue center. We will be closed until the end of next week. The cleanup is going very slowly and there is very limited access to downtown Manhattan.

The subways are not running and all the outer borough are choked with traffic with people bringing their cars and parking them as close to Manhattan as possible. The air quality is bad, there is possibility that some more buildings (including our own that was next to a collapsed building) may come down aggravating the situation.

There are a number people that I know, with families, that perished in the bombings (we were going go to a 10th bday party this weekend, but the mother is missing - what do we do now ??) from my daughter's school and our neighborhood. But they are defiant, and most of the businesses try to operate as usual with a backdrop of surrealism...

Thanks for all of your e-mails and good wishes. We appreciate it and find comfort in them.


Hundreds of emails went back and forth over the next few weeks on the listserv. I've saved them all.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

eReaders Becoming Niche Market Players?

I've always been a fan of the Kindle and other eReader type devices, especially when compared to bulkier and heavier tablets that are difficult to view in direct light conditions. Lately though, I've been wondering how long eReaders would continue to exist as tablets become lighter and smaller with better displays. Well, I just read an interesting study from ABI Research titled eReaders and the Digital Publishing Market that takes a look at where the eReader market is going.

Here's some details from the ABI report:

  • Eleven million eReaders are projected to be shipped globally in 2012, down from a peak volume in 2011 of 15 million devices.
  • The growing popularity of media tablets along with declining US “baby boomer” population and lack of organized digital bookstores outside of the US and Western Europe will reduce the eReader opportunity over the next five years.
  • Despite the average tablet selling for more  than $465 as a result of Apple’s dominant market position, tablets are expected to outsell eReaders 9 to 1 this year. 
  • Over the next five years, annual eReader shipments are projected to drop by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.1%. In contrast, global media tablet shipments are predicted to increase from approximately 102 million annual device shipments in 2012 to nearly 250 million in 2017.
All bad news for eReaders. Well, not so fast.... the report continues... However, eReaders maintain advantages over media tablets for reading purposes. Electronic paper (ePaper) displays are able to better replicate the print reading experience and are usable in direct sunlight conditions unlike LCD technologies. The eReader battery life of weeks between charging is significantly greater than the media tablet. And of course, eReaders are priced significantly less than entry-level tablets.

ABI senior mobile devices analyst Joshua Flood is quoted “Regardless of the tremendous historical eReader success, the market tides have already begun to turn. Nevertheless, the eReader market will not be totally cannibalized by media tablets. We believe there will always be a niche market for the dedicated reading device for voracious readers, business travelers, and educational segments, particularly ones that are low-priced.”

ABI senior practice director Jeff Orr continues “The decline of buying audiences for dedicated digital readers in the US is more rapid than the digital publishing ecosystems organizing for growth in Asia or Eastern Europe. Development of content digitalization systems and services in all world regions should continue without delay as the effort will be necessary for developing mobile app catalogs that provide easy search, discovery, and monetization.”

Be sure to check out the full ABI Research report.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Curiosity on Mars Bringing Back Memories

The Mars landing of Curiosity has brought back some memories when it comes to sensors and systems in space.....

It was 1980. I was a year out of college with an undergrad degree in microbiology and working in a hospital lab trying to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. At one time I had thought I wanted to go to medical school but the more time I spent in a hospital working in a clinical setting the more I realized I was not cut out for that kind of work. I loved the biology but I was struggling with the procedures - the work was 100% protocol - the same procedures over and over again with zero room for mistakes. So many of the people I worked with were so good at it - they thrived on it.  Me - I had always loved tinkering, taking things apart and trying to put them back together. Trying new things that did not always work was what I liked. Trying this instead of that. What if I did this? What would happen?

But.... when you are dealing with people's lives you can't do that kind of stuff. I have so much respect and envy for people who do this kind of work but I knew it ultimately was not for me. I loved the science but knew I had to change directions with respect to my career. Fortunately, something came along (as it often does in life) that helped me with my dilema.

In the lab one day we started testing a machine called the VITEK for McDonnell Douglas and NASA. VITEK was a fully automated microbial identification and susceptibility system that had been developed in the 1960's for use in space. The system is based on microbial growth in thin plastic identification cards that have small wells with sugars, enzymes, etc. After the cards have been inoculated with sample they are incubated at 37 degrees C and photometrically scanned every hour for either color change or turbidity. Different bacteria ferment different sugars, produce different byproducts, grow or don't grow based on nutrients or conditions, etc. Basically how they grow or do not grow is how they are identified.

McDonnell Douglas was looking to move the product from outer space into the hospital lab and we had engineers coming in and out of the lab weekly tweaking the system. We were running tests in parallel - we'd run a sample using traditional microbiological ID methods and run the same sample through the VITEK, comparing identification results. There was about a three week period when the engineers were in lots - the system was not working properly - something was screwed up in the incubation cycle and they were having a hard time figuring it out.

One of the engineers I had got to know came in with a large stack of green-bar  paper with thousands of lines of code one day. I had never seen actual code before - it was so logical and simple and organized. Really cool! I was able to look at it and quickly pick out where the error was - the incubation line was not properly placed in the incubation cycle loop. I showed the engineer what code lines needed to be swapped around and remember him scratching his head and shrugging his shoulders. Still, he made the mod and....... it worked! It was so trivial but it worked!! The engineers were looking too deeply into the code - this was sort of like a TV not working because it was not plugged in type of thing. That simple. I remember the guy telling me I should have been an engineer. I also remember him telling me the first time someone writes a program it never works and you always had to go back and troubleshoot it. I was intrigued - engineering - could it be for a tinkerer like me who likes to learn from my mistakes?

Well - long story short - my sister and two brothers had degrees in electrical engineering. They had been bugging me for a while to check out engineering. They talked me into going to see Dr Jim Masi (the same Jim Masi who was our first Director at at Western New England University and we were able to work out an agreement where I could pick up the undergrad courses I was missing and then move into an MS Electrical Engineering program. It took a while and most of the time was incredibly hard but I was able to complete the degree.

As an engineer I could now tinker and try new (sometimes off the wall) things and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. And that microbiology background has never gone to waste - I know it has helped me think and approach problems a little differently than traditionally trained engineers. All good!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Future of Wireless: Spectrum and Cell Technologies

John Garvey from Garvey Communications dropped me an email last week and asked if I could write up a post about small cell wireless technologies. He had read a piece in Business Week titled Want to See the Future of Mobile Coverage? Go to a Baseball Game that describes how Verizon Wireless is using 4G LTE COWs (Cells On Wheels) and COLTs (Cells on Light Trucks) at sporting events. Both of these technologies provide portable bandwidth where and when it is needed. If you've ever been in a packed stadium and tried to make a call, upload a picture to Facebook, or post a tweet you've likely had problems getting a connection.

The more I thought the more I realized a good discussion will take a little more than a single post so I'm going to write a series on new antenna technologies over the next few weeks. Today let's discuss the way cellular is done now and why it's not going to work in the future.

Everyone know what a cell tower looks like and most would describe them as big, tall and ugly with lots of antennas hanging on them. If you look on the ground at the base of the towers you'll typically see a few "huts" that contain (among other things) large amplifiers that provide signal up to the antennas at the top of the towers. Connectivity to the towers (referred to as "backhaul") is provided by fiber. Here's a simplified drawing of a big tower setup.

The towers are fed by fiber and optical signals transmitted on the fiber get converted back and forth to wireless signals, giving us connectivity on our mobile devices. Seems pretty simple and if we need more capacity all we need to do is run more fiber to the towers, right? Well..... not really. Providers can bury as much fiber as they want and convert it to wireless frequencies but that's not going to solve the problem. The bottleneck today is spectrum and (especially) in congested areas this bottleneck is causing the dropped calls and slow wireless data access we've all experienced.

So, spectrum is a problem - what exactly is it? Each provider - AT&T, Verizon Wireless, etc - have licenses from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to use specific frequencies for information transfer. It is important each providers spectrum be allocated in a way that it is kept separate for interference free communications so different providers cannot typically share licensed spectrum. When I think about spectrum I think about tuning the radio in my car - each station is licensed by the FCC and has it's own "channel", broadcasting at a specific frequency.

Now - just like the numbers on your car radio tuner - there is only a finite amount of total spectrum available. This finite availability, along with not being organized in the most efficient way, limits things like coverage, connection speed and quality of service. The spectrum issue is really coming to a head now with high bandwidth LTE services being rolled out by all providers - higher speeds, more bandwidth requirements and more people using their phones for voice, video and data services.

What's being done by the wireless providers to get around this spectrum bottleneck? There's been a mad scramble to purchase as much spectrum as possible but..... utilizing a finite amount of spectrum the way it is currently being used is not going to solve the problem long term. They'll still end up running out. What's being done?

There are a number of solutions. We're also seeing providers building WiFi networks (WiFi uses unlicensed spectrum) to offload some of the licensed spectrum traffic. There's a bunch of other technologies including small cells (the COWS and COLTS John was asking about), spectrum re-farming and cell-splitting that look promising. I'll take a look at some of these in my next few posts.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Wireless Options: Virgin, Verizon, Sprint and CDMA

Virgin Mobile has announced they will soon be selling a pay-as-you-go iPhone4 and iPhone 4S, offering contract free service starting at $20 per month, moving all the way up to $50 per month for unlimited talk and data.

What's interesting about this is Virgin uses something called CDMA for channel access - that's the same technology used by Sprint and Verizon Wireless. And get this - Virgin is considered a virtual mobile network operator, purchasing network capacity from Sprint. This means when you use a Virgin phone, you're using the Sprint wireless network. Sprint service is just as good as AT&T or Verizon in my opinion. The latter two just do a lot more advertising to make us thing they are better.

So, let's think about this, Virgin uses the same access technology as Sprint and Verizon and Virgin's a lot cheaper. You're also not locked into a 2 year contract. Hmmmmm......switching sounds like a no brainer. There is a catch though - Virgin is charging $650 for a iPhone 4S - full price. It's still cheaper though over the long run. Let's compare Sprint's $80 per month unlimited data service (two year contract) to Virgin's $50 per month service (pay as you go).

I have not included Verizon Wireless in the table because Verizon is eliminating the unlimited data plans. If you've recently bought a Verizon iPhone 4S though you could switch by unlocking (not recommending you do this but many have or are considering) it and switching over to the Virgin network. To break your Verizon contract you would have to pay around $600 which sounds like a lot but it may be worth crunching some numbers to compare total cost.

If you've got an AT&T iPhone you're out of luck - it uses a different technology for channel access called GSM which is not CDMA compatible.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) - June 2012

I've written in the past about the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) in Holyoke, MA. The project is collaboration of five of the state’s most research-intensive universities (Boston University, Harvard, MIT, UMass Amherst and Northeastern), state government and private industry — the most significant collaboration among government, industry and public and private universities in the history of the Commonwealth, and the first facility in the nation of its kind.

The facility is currently under construction and when completed will provide a world-class computational infrastructure, indispensible in the increasingly sensor and data-rich environments of modern science and engineering discovery. Today, virtually no major breakthrough, be it designing a new drug, developing new materials for clean energy or addressing climate change -- can take place without computation. In silico experimentation adds a powerful new dimension to knowledge discovery in all fields, alongside theory, physical experimentation and observation. With the increasingly integrated role of computation in fundamental and applied research, the MGHPCC represents a critical piece of infrastructure that will continue to fuel the world-leading innovation economy of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts through cooperative research, education and outreach activities.

On Wednesday afternoon a group of got to tour the construction site. Here's my picture set.

We all left with our jaws hanging. An incredible facility and some amazing people doing some things nobody else has ever done. Thanks especially to Claire and John.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

See You Later WiMAX

I've written here in the past about WiMAX and the slow but inevitable take over by LTE. Well, it's starting soon - at least with Sprint's wireless services. Here's some details from an Inside Sprint blog post yesterday:

  • On 6/7, smartphone customers in markets slated for LTE will be notified via text message of the upcoming launch.
  • The message states: SprintFreeMsg: Ready for some GREAT news? Sprint is rolling out an all-new network in (insert city here). Learn more at Reply End to stop.
  • Sprint’s all-new network launches by mid-summer 2012 in 4 cities: Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta.
  • More cities launch later this summer and throughout the year.
  • The all-new network includes the launch of 4G LTE and improvements to Sprint’s 3G network.
Benefits include:
  • More reliable connection to voice calls, emails, and apps, and the internet
  • Expanded coverage in their area
  • Faster downloading, surfing and streaming
  • Improved indoor/outdoor signal strength
  • Enhanced voice quality
  • Fewer dropped calls
See you later WiMAX!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Likejacking Using Social Media Spam

Social media spam is taking off and it is not good. Up until a year or so ago, spam was primarily delivered using email. As email spam filters have improved - spammers have turned to an easier target - social media sites including Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter.

How bad is it getting? Mark Risher, CEO of Imperium is quted in a recent Business Week piece claiming spammers create as many as 40% of the accounts on social media sites. He also says about 8 percent of messages sent via social pages are spam. This is twice the volume of six months ago.

Here's how it works in Facebook - it can be as simple as liking or sharing an image or page which could allow a spam app access to your profile and friend list. Many are now referring this as "likejacking" or "clickjacking". Pinterest is extremely vulnerable with spammers embedding links in pictures - click a thumbnail to view a picture and you may end up linked to someplace you do not want to go.

Social media sites are playing catchup now, hiring hundreds of programming specialists and security experts to protect users from spammers. It will get better.

Last January, Facebook sued Ascend Media, an advertising firm that, according to the same Business Week piece, is pulling in around $960 thousand per month.  In addition, Twitter recently sued alleged spammers Skootle and JL4 Web Solutions.

Bottom line - don't friend, like, share, click, users and things that look spammy.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Bits and Bytes Podcast - 4G LTE, Motorcycles Made From Car Parts, and Bamboo Clothing

Last week Mike Q and I recorded a new 36 minute and 10 second podcast covering 4G LTE, Motorcycles made from Car Parts, and Bamboo Clothing. Here's links to referenced content  in the podcast:

Verizon HomeFusion Uses 4G LTE to Complete Last Mile Nationwide  

Google Translate Car to Motorcycle

You can listen directly in your browser clicking the play arrow below.

If you have iTunes installed you can subscribe to our podcasts by clicking here.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Goodbye Landlines.... Hello Fixed LTE

I've been buried with final exams and travel the past few weeks and have not had a chance to post. Lots of things have been happening though.

With all of the Facebook IPO hype and the Verizon Wireless' data cap announcement you may have missed something potentially much bigger. Back on May 2, Verizon Wireless put out a news release titled HomeFusion Broadband From Verizon Now Available Nationwide on America's HomeFusion Broadband From Verizon Now Available Nationwide on America's Largest 4G LTE Network

It's about putting an antenna on your house that will replace those copper telephone wires with 4G LTE wireless. Now, Verizon's 4G LTE network currently covers approximately two-thirds of the U.S. population and 230 markets and this new product is designed to deliver both data and voice services for these people in these markets. LTE has been pitched initially as a mobile product but works great using fixed antennas attached to a home or business.

Here's how this new fixed antenna Verizon 4G LTE product works. Verizon techs come out to your home and install a cylinder-shaped 4G LTE antenna (see picture). This antenna picks up an LTE signal and transmits it to a broadband router in the home. That broadband router can have up to 4 wired and 20 wireless WiFi connections.

Verizon is saying that, in a fully loaded real world environment, users should experience average data rates between 5 and 12 Mbps downstream and and between 2 and 5 Mbps upstream. That's some pretty good bandwidth. Pricing ranges from $60 (10 GB cap) to $120 (30 GB cap) per month. If users go over the cap, they'll pay an extra $10 per GB.

Here's where it gets really interesting. Back on April 19, Verizon announced they would stop selling DSL as an option to customers who live in FiOS territory. Today I heard (unconfirmed) Verizon will stop using DSL range extenders. These range extenders are being used to get DSL signal out long distances. DSL sure sounds like it is going away soon.

Is 4G LTE the next step? Will fixed 4G LTE replace those old copper landlines that voice and DSL run on? Two thirds of the U.S. population is covered by 4G LTE...... I've written about it in the past...... I've always thought so and right now I'm thinking it's all going to happen a lot quicker than I ever imagined.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Data Transmission on T1 Carriers - Part 2

In Part 1of this topic I described how a T1 carrier is used to transmit data. Data transmission by nature is "bursty" meaning large amounts of information are typically transmitted and then followed by relatively quiet transmission periods. This can cause transmission problems for T-carrier systems since they rely on timing synchronization. Let's take a look how this potential problem is avoided.

T-1 lines that are not constantly active (having binary 1’s) will have timing problems because actual pulses are also used for signal synchronization by the receiver. To add synchronization on “quiet” T-1 lines a technique called Bipolar with Zero Substitution (B8ZS) has been developed. B8ZS adds pulses by substituting 8 zero bit groups with one of two specific 8 bit codes.

B8ZS Substitution with Most Previous “1” Pulse a Positive Going Pulse
When the transmitter gets a string of eight zeroes and the most previous “1” pulse was a positive going pulse the following 8 bit pulse sequence is substituted for the eight zero sequence.

B8ZS Substitution with Most Previous “1” Pulse a Positive Going Pulse

Notice there is a bi-polar polarity discrepancy in this substituted pulse sequence. Pulses 5 and 7 are sequential “1” pulses and are both negative going – they do not alter in polarity. 

B8ZS Substitution with Most Previous “1” Pulse a Negative Going Pulse
When the transmitter gets a string of eight zeroes and the most previous “1” pulse was a negative going pulse the following 8 bit pulse sequence is substituted for the eight zero sequence.

B8ZS Substitution with Most Previous “1” Pulse a Negative Going Pulse

Notice there is also a bi-polar polarity discrepancy in this substituted pulse sequence. Again pulses 5 and 7 are sequential “1” pulses. In this case they are both positive going and do not alter in polarity.
T-1 receivers can detect both of these bi-polar polarity discrepancies and substitute strings of 8 zeroes whenever one is detected.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

University of Florida Shutting Down Computer Science Department

I honestly thought this was a joke when I first read it. The University of Florida - that's the big one in Gainesville, where Tim Tebow played football for the Gators - has decided to shut down it's computer science department. The University has decided to eliminate all funding for teaching assistants in computer science, cut the graduate and research programs entirely, and move what is left into other departments.

This will allow the University to save about $1.4 million per year. At the same time, the University is increasing the athletic budget by $2 million to $97. million. Am I blaming athletics - no. I love football! But it does look like there is more emphasis on athletics at the University of Florida after a move like this.

Where's it coming from?  It's a response to the Florida State Legislators who have cut the University budget by 30% over the next 6 years. You can read the University response in a Forbes post.

There's more.... a couple of days ago Florida governor Rick Scott approved the creation Florida Polytechnic University, a new public university that will be located in the Tampa area. The new University will involve the phasing out of the University of Southern Florida Polytechnic campus also located in Lakeland.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Video: I Am Worried About My Grade

With the end of the semester coming in a few weeks it's that time of year on college campuses. This is for those of you who teach. If you've been at it long enough, you've probably heard just about all of these.

Students - you need to be a little more creative and  thanks to Jean and Diane for passing this along.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

87 Million 4G Devices Will Ship In 2012

According to a recent ABI Research report, 4G devices are moving rapidly from the assembly line to retail stores.

Here's some details:
  • Refers to a range of 4G-enabled mobile devices, from USB dongles, smartphones, tablets, 4G portable hotspots, and wireless broadband CPE modems
  •  4G devices are expected to generate 87 million in unit sales in 2012, up 294% year-on-year.
  • 61 million 4G handsets being shipped in 2012.
  • 26 million 4G non-handset products (e.g. USB dongles for legacy laptops and netbooks, by premise equipment, home modems, etc) will be shipped
  • The lion’s share of the market is now backing LTE as service provider and vendor support has fallen away from WiMAX.
  • There is a natural evolutionary demand from 3G end-users, both business and consumer, to jump onto the 4G data bandwagon. 
  • Mobile device vendors are experiencing intense competitive pressure, which is expected to bring down LTE handset prices, estimated at 10 to 20 percent over the next two years.
It's not all good though. There are still some big technical issues that need to be worked out including the recent Australian iPad 3 promotion fiasco, when iPad 3s were being promoted as being ‘LTE-ready,’ even though the modem is unable to access the Australian LTE spectrum band

In addition, some customers will not be ready this year to pay a premium for 4G handsets and 4G services. 

As a reference, in a February 2012 report Forrester predicted by 2016 one billion people will own smart phones. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Data Transmission on T-1 Carriers Part 1

Back in December I wrote a post here titled T1 Lines - What They Are. In the post I discuss the Digital Signal (DS) Level System and how combining the equivalent of 24 DS-0 voice channels along with overhead consisting of timing and synchronization bits brings the DS-1 bit rate to 1.644 Mbps - that's a T1. In this post, let's have a look in more detail to get a better idea of how the entire system works. 

The T-1 Carrier uses time division multiplexing and was designed for voice call transmission. When used for data one would think it would be possible to achieve a data bit rate of 64 Kbps over a T-1 carrier. Looking a little closer one sees that data on T-1 carriers is transmitted in the form of only 7 bit words, all eight bits are not used. Why? 

Remember the T carrier system was initially designed for voice. The first signal synchronization used for the T-1 carrier substituted a single in band signaling bit, used for control, for each of the 24 channels in every sixth frame. This means in the sixth and twelfth frames of every T-1 carrier master frame there is a bit used for in-band signaling. This is referred to as bit-robbing. Bit robbing is usually not a problem when transmitting voice. Even though the signal is slightly distorted, the listener on the receiving end cannot perceive the distortion. However this is a major problem when transmitting data as any data received with missing bits will be distorted and received incorrectly. To eliminate the problem caused by bit robbing data on the T-1 carrier is limited to seven bits per frame in all frames. By decreasing the number of bits transmitted the data bit rate is reduced.
For this reason, 56 Kbps Clear Channel Capability is the term used to refer to the T-1 carrier single channel maximum data bit rate.

T-1 Carrier Pulse Cycles
If we look closer at a T-1 Carrier signal we see there are negative and positive pulses combined in the digital pulse train. A sample T-1 signal pulse train is shown in the figure below.

Sample T-1 Pulse Train

It has been found that alternating positive/negative pulse trains (bipolar) produces fewer transmission errors than all positive or all negative pulse trains. These pulses are used to represent binary 1’s and each pulse, when non-zero, is positive half the non-zero cycle (50%) and negative half the non-zero cycle. We can look at an example of a positive (cycle 1) and negative (cycle 4) pulse from the above figure.
Sample T-1 Positive and Negative Going Pulses

In the figure above, T represents the period, or time it takes to complete a single pulse cycle. We can calculate the percent duty cycle using the following equation:

The pulses here are not zero for one half of the pulse period and have a 50% duty cycle. Let’s go back now and look at the original pulse train diagram and look at each cycle:

You can now see that if a pulse is present within a cycle time slot, whether positive or negative, it represents a 1 bit and if no pulse is present, it represents a 0-bit.

In Part 2 of this series I'll cover something called Bipolar with Zero Substitution (B8ZS) for T-1 signal synchronization.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Is You Legal Right To A Landline Phone Going Away?

You may not realize it but you have a legal right to have landline phone service at almost any address in the United States. The Goals of Universal Service, as outlined in the FCC Telecommunications Act of 1996 are to:

  • Promote the availability of quality services at just, reasonable and affordable rates for all consumers
  • Increase nationwide access to advanced telecommunications services
  • Advance the availability of such services to all consumers, including those in low income, rural, insular, and high cost areas at rates that are reasonably comparable to those charged in urban areas
  • Increase access to telecommunications and advanced services in schools, libraries and rural health care facilities
  • Provide equitable and non-discriminatory contributions from all providers of telecommunications services to the fund supporting universal service programs
Universal Service goes way back to 1913 when AT&T President Thomas Vail promised "one system, one policy, universal service" in return for maintaining AT&T's (at the time) monopoly. Times have changed and today, AT&T along with Verizon are saying universal landline service is costly and unfair due to a now competitive market for voice services.

Both companies have proposed a new set of rules that would allow them to only service the customers they want to service. Some say (including David Cay Johnston in a recent piece at Reuters) this roughly translates to the higher population and wealthy areas where people can afford bundled voice, video and data packages.

Johnston's piece says:
 State capitals are seeing intense lobbying to end universal service obligations but with little public awareness due to the dwindling ranks () of statehouse () reporters. 
The Utility Rate Network, a consumer advocate group, identified 120 AT&T lobbyists in Sacramento, one per California lawmaker. Mary Pat Regan, president of AT&T Kentucky, told me she has 36 lobbyists in that state working on the company's bill to end universal landline service.
Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin have all repealed Universal Service but there have not been any cutbacks.... yet. 

Cell phones, cable and satellite are being proposed as options at least in the rural areas but there are limitations with each. Cell phones are expensive but there are packages for low income people starting at $2 per month. Internet calling is another option but expensive because it requires a broadband connection and a service. Satellite is another option but it's expensive and sometimes there are weather related connection issues.

Johnston finishes his Reuters piece saying:
We.... should not lose sight of the benefits of guaranteed access to affordable basic telephone service. The law should not force people to buy costly services they do not need.Nor should we forget that customers paid for the landline telephone system, including many billions of dollars in rate increases over the past two decades that helped AT&T and Verizon develop their cellular systems. 
If we lose universal service, I doubt we will ever get it back. Let's get a balanced policy rather than quietly rewriting laws to benefit one industry.