Telecom

The failure of the pan-tilt camera in video calls

This year, we stayed with Kathryn’s family for the holidays, so I attended dinner in my own mother’s home via Skype. Once again, the technology was frustrating. And it need not be.

There were many things that can be better. For those of us who Skype regularly, we don’t understand that there is still hassle for those not used to it. Setting up a good videoconferencing setup is still work. As I have found is always the case in a group-to-solos videoconference, the group folks do not care nearly as much about the conference as the remote solos, so a fundamental rule of design here is that if the remotes can do something, they should be the ones doing it, since they care the most. If there is to be UI, leave the UI to the remotes (who are sitting at computers and care) and not to the meeting room locals. Many systems get this exactly backwards — they imagine the meeting room is the “master” and thus has the complex UI.

In this family setting, however, the clearest problem for me is that no camera can show the whole room. It’s like sitting at the table unable to move your head, with blinders on. You can’t really be part of the group. You also have to be away from the table so everybody there can see you, since screens are only visible over a limited viewing angle.

One clear answer to this is the pan/tilt camera, which is to say a webcam with servo motors that allow it to look around. This technology is very cheap — you’ll find pan/tilt IP security cameras online for $30 or less, and there are even some low priced Chinese made pan/tilt webcams out there — I just picked another up for $20. I also have the Logitech Orbit AF. This was once a top of the line HD webcam, and still is very good, but Logitech no longer makes it. Logitech also makes the BCC950 — a $200 conference room pan/tilt webcam which has extremely good HD quality and a built-in hardware compressor for 1080p video that is superb with Skype. We have one of these, and it advertises “remote control” but in fact all that means is there is an infrared remote the people in the room can use to steer the camera. In our meetings, nobody ever uses this remote for the reason I specify above — the people in the room aren’t the motivated ones.

This is compounded by the fact that the old method — audio conference speakerphones — have a reasonably well understood UI. Dial the conference bridge, enter a code, and let the remotes handle their own calling in. Anything more complex than that gets pushback — no matter how much better it is.  read more »

International roaming, T-mobile and local SIMs

Back from 5 weeks of international travel, I continue to seek the best solution in my quest for reasonably priced data service when outside the USA.

Data has become a must for me when on the road. In spite of the fact that we all lived without it a decade ago, I find it very frustrating if it’s not available (or priced at $15,000 per gigabyte, which is the typical default roaming rate.) It’s how I find directions, food, tourist info and keep in touch with others.

For a while my normal practice, if in a country for more than a few days, has been to purchase a local SIM card, and of course to have an unlocked GSM phone. Usually local SIMs are now available with 500mb to 1gb of data for $10 to $20. There are various web sites that list the local data providers to help you choose. The best prices tend to come from the MVNOs — not the main incumbent carriers — but even the big carriers tend to have decent prepaid deals. These usually come with some voice minutes and texting. This is useful though I don’t do a lot of voice minutes when overseas due to time zones. I use them to reach local friends, book hotels, check restaurants, and with my companion. Annoyingly, though I have bought many of these SIMs, even for data, it’s not nearly as nice and easy as it should be. A large fraction of the time, something goes wrong.  read more »

The hassles of local SIMs

  • It can often be a pain to research and pick the right carrier, and then to find one of their stores, and get the purchase done. This was particularly true in the past, when selling a SIM to a random foreigner was not a common event at many stores. You have to go out of your way, and deal with people who don’t speak your language. Some providers put a store in the arrival area of the airport, which is great, though they tend to be the more expensive cards.
  • Until you get the new SIM, you are faced with very expensive roaming.
  • Research does matter. In England (where language is not a problem) some carriers give you your data bundle free when you put 10 pounds on the card, others charge you those 10 pounds, leaving you with no voice minutes.
  • Once you get the card, you often have to deal with web sites, menus and voice prompts not in your language. Setting up the voicemail is already a pain, and is far worse if you can’t understand the prompts.
  • Fixing odd problems is difficult in an unfamiliar system. My Orange card had a package of 500mb in it for 10 Euros, (great) but kept draining the money I put on it, leaving it unusable for making calls and texts, and though I can read and speak modest French, I was unable to find the cause.
  • There are always issues of prepaid cards for short use. If you put too much in the card, it’s wasted unless you are coming back soon. If you don’t put enough in, you have to run around buying and adding refills — again with prompts not in your language. Carriers would do well to let you add a lot to the card, and then refund it to you on request. This would make me put more in the card, and use the phone more, so it’s a win for them.
  • As noted, balances usually expire quickly, and cards often expire after 6 months or a year if not used. Though some cards are lasting longer.
  • In some countries, they won’t let you refill from a credit card, which means you must buy cards at local shops with cash, and always have a card handy — then throw away the spare cards when you leave, wasted.
  • You need to learn and give a new phone number to people. You may be able to forward your old number, but often that comes at a high cost. As a plus, you make it much cheaper for locals to call and text you, while making it more expensive for people back home to reach you (unless you forward and eat many times that cost.) You do get the “advantage” that incoming calls and texts are free.
  • Text messages generally do not forward, so you will not see those unless you keep 2 phones — and pay roaming.
  • Calls back home may or may not be quite expensive, but usually are much less than roaming rates on your home SIM.
  • If you move to a different country, you usually have to do it all over again — shop again, and have a new number. In Europe, where it is common to hop from country to country this becomes a real issue. Some prepaid plans allow tolerable voice roaming in other countries, though data roaming tends to still be expensive on prepaid, in spite of a European order to reduce it.
  • You are going to pay $10 to $20 plus your time for all this, and if all you want is to do a few voice minutes and some texts and keep your data usage to wifi, you might not come out ahead on a short trip.

T-Mobile’s new solution

Locking devices down too hard, and other tales of broken phones

One day I noticed my nice 7 month old Nexus 4 had a think crack on the screen. Not sure where it came from, but my old Nexus One had had a similar crack and when it was on you barely saw it and the phone worked fine, so I wasn’t scared — until I saw that the crack stopped the digitizer from recognizing my finger in a band in the middle of the screen. A band which included dots from my “unlock” code.

And so, while the phone worked fine, you could not unlock it. That was bad news because with 4.3, the Android team had done a lot of work to make sure unlocked phones are secure if people randomly pick them up. As I’ll explain in more detail, you really can’t unlock it. And while it’s locked, it won’t respond to USB commands either. I had enabled debugging some time ago, but either that doesn’t work unlocked or that state had been reset in a system update.

No unlocking meant no backing up the things that Google doesn’t back up for you. It backs up a lot, these days, but there’s still dozens of settings, lots of app data, logs of calls and texts, your app screen layout and much more that’s lost.

I could repair the phone — but when LG designed this phone they merged the digitizer and screen, so the repair is $180, and the parts take weeks to come in at most shops. Problem is, you can now buy a new Nexus 4 for just $199 (which is a truly great price for an unlocked phone) or the larger model I have for $249. Since the phone still has some uses, it makes much more sense to get a new one than to repair, other than to get that lost data. But more to the point, it’s been 7 months and there are newer, hotter phones out there! So I eventually got a new phone.

But first I did restore functionality on the N4 by doing a factory wipe. That’s possible without the screen, and the wiped phone has no lock code. It’s actually possible to use quite a bit of the phone. Typing is a pain since a few letters on the right don’t register but you can get them by rotating. You would not want to use this long term, but many apps are quite usable, such as maps and in particular eBook reading — for cheap I have a nice small eBook reader. And you can make and receive calls. (Even on the locked phone I could receive a call somebody made to me — it was the only thing it could do.) In addition, by connecting a bluetooth mouse and keyboard, I could use the phone fully — this was essential for setting the phone up again, where the lack of that region on the touchpad would have made it impossible.

One of my security maxims is “Every security system ends up blocking legitimate users, often more than it blocks out the bad guys.” I got bitten by that.  read more »

V2V vs. the paths to a successful networked technology (Part 1)

A few weeks ago, in my article on myths I wrote why the development of “vehicle to vehicle” (V2V) communications was mostly orthogonal to that of robocars. That’s very far from the view of many authors, and most of those in the ITS community. I remain puzzled by the V2V plan and how it might actually come to fruition. Because there is some actual value in V2V, and we would like to see that value realized in the future, I am afraid that the current strategy will not work out and thus misdirect a lot of resources.

This is particularly apropos because recently, the FCC issued an NPRM saying it wants to open up the DSRC band at 5.9ghz that was meant for V2V for unlicenced wifi-style use. This has been anticipated for some time, but the ITS community is concerned about losing the band it received in the late 90s but has yet to use in anything but experiments. The demand for new unlicenced spectrum is quite appropriately very large — the opening up of 2.4gz decades ago generated the greatest period of innovation in the history of radio — and the V2V community has a daunting task resisting it.

In this series I will examine where V2V approaches went wrong and what they might do to still attain their goals.


I want to begin by examining what it takes to make a successful cooperative technology. History has many stories of cooperative technologies (either peer-to-peer or using central relays) that grew, some of which managed to do so in spite of appearing to need a critical mass of users before they were useful.

Consider the rise and fall of fax (or for that matter, the telephone itself.) For a lot of us, we did not get a fax machine until it was clear that lots of people had fax machines, and we were routinely having people ask us to send or receive faxes. But somebody had to buy the first fax machine, in fact others had to buy the first million fax machines before this could start happening.

This was not a problem because while one fax machine is useless, two are quite useful to a company with a branch office. Fax started with pairs of small networks of machines, and one day two companies noticed they both had fax and started communicating inter-company instead of intra-company.

So we see rule one: The technology has to have strong value to the first purchaser. Use by a small number of people (though not necessarily just one) needs to be able to financially justify itself. This can be a high-cost, high-value “early adopter” value but it must be real.

This was true for fax, e-mail, phone and many other systems, but a second principle has applied in many of the historical cases. Most, but not all systems were able to build themselves on top of an underlying layer that already existed for other reasons. Fax came on top of the telephone. E-mail on top of the phone and later the internet. Skype was on top of the internet and PCs. The underlying system allowed it to be possible for two people to adopt a technology which was useful to just those two, and the two people could be anywhere. Any two offices could get a fax or an e-mail system and communicate, only the ordinary phone was needed.

The ordinary phone had it much harder. To join the phone network in the early days you had to go out and string physical wires. But anybody could still do it, and once they did it, they got the full value they were paying for. They didn’t pay for phone wires in the hope that others would some day also pay for wires and they could talk to them — they found enough value calling the people already on that network.

Social networks are also interesting. There is a strong critical mass factor there. But with social networks, they are useful to a small group of friends who join. It is not necessary that other people’s social groups join, not at first. And they have the advantage of viral spreading — the existing infrastructure of e-mail allows one person to invite all their friends to join in.

Enter Car V2V

Car V2V doesn’t satisfy these rules. There is no value for the first person to install a V2V radio, and very tiny value for the first thousands of people. An experiment is going on in Ann Arbor with 3,000 vehicles, all belonging to people who work in the same area, and another experiment in Europe will equip several hundred vehicles.  read more »

Mesh networking when the cell network fails

Interesting article about a new plan for mesh networking Android phones if the cell network fails. I point this out because of another blog post of mine from 2005 on a related proposal from Klein Gilhousen that he was pushing after Katrina.

The wifi mesh has the problem that wifi range is not going to get much better then 30-40m, and so you need a very serious density of phones to get a real mesh going, especially to route IP as this plan wishes to. Klein’s plan was to have the phones mesh over the wireless bands that were going unusued when the cell networks were dead (or absent in the wilderness.) The problem with his plan was that phone tranceivers tend to not be able to transmit and receive on the same bands, they need a cell tower. He proposed new generations of phones be modified to allow that.

But it hasn’t happened, in spite of being an obviously valuable thing in disasters. Sure there are some interference issues at the edges of legitimate cell nets, but they could be worked out. Cell phones are almost exclusively sold via carriers in the many countries, including the USA. They haven’t felt it a priority to push for phones that can work without carriers.

I suspect trying to route voice or full IP is also a mistake, especially for a Katrina like situation. There the older network technologies of the world, designed for very intermittent connectivity, make some sense. A network designed to send short text messages, a “short message service” if you will, using mesh principles combined with store and forward could make sure texts got to and from a lot of places. You might throw in small photos so trapped people could do things like send photos of wounds to doctors.

Today’s phones have huge amounts of memory. Phones with gigabytes of flash could store tens to hundreds of millions of passing (compressed and encrypted) texts until work got out that a text had been delivered. Texts could hop during brief connections, and airplanes, blimps and drones could fly overhead doing brief data syncs with people on the ground. (You would not send every text to every phone, but every phone would know how many hops it has been recently from the outside, and you could send always upstream.) A combination of cell protocols when far and wifi when close (or to those airplanes) could get decent volumes of data moving.

Phones would know if they were on their own batteries, or plugged into a car or other power source, and the ones with power would advertise they can route long term. It would not be perfect but it would be much better than what we have now.

But the real lament is that, as fast as the pace of change is in some fields of mobile, here we are 7.5 years after Katrina, having seen several other disasters that wiped out cell nets, and nothing much has changed.

Guide to a meeting room based videoconference with Skype

If you’re going to have a meeting with people in a meeting room and one or more people calling in remotely, I recommend trying to have a remote multi-party video call, or at the very least a high-fidelity audio call, and avoid the traditional use of a phone conference bridge to a speakerphone on the meeting room table. The reality is the remote people never feel part of the meeting, and no matter how expensive the speakerphone, the audio just doesn’t cut it. There are several tools that can do a multi-party video call, including Oovoo, Sightspeed, Vsee and others, but for now I recommend Skype because it’s high quality, cheap, encrypted and already ubiquitous.

While you can just set up the meeting room with Skype on a typical laptop, it’s worth a bit of extra effort to make things run more smoothly in the meeting room, and to get good audio and video. Here are some steps to take, in rough order of importance.

The Basics

  • You should upgrade to the latest Skype. Use “Help/Check for upgrades” in Skype or download from their web site.
  • Create or designate a “conference master” account. (Skype no longer needs a Premium account for this but calls are limited to 4 hours/day and 100hrs/month.) I also recommend you have some money in the Skype account for outbound calling, see below.
  • The conference master should learn the UI of multi-party calling. They must be on Windows or a Mac. (Sadly, for now, only Windows is recommended.) The UI is slightly different, annoyingly. Read Skype’s instructions for windows or Mac. They also have some how-to videos. The hard reality is that the Windows version is more advanced. Don’t learn the UI during the conference — in particular make sure you know how to deal with late callers or re-adding bounced people because it can happen.
  • The conference master should have a decently high-powered PC, especially if having 4 or more remotes.
  • Notify all participants of the name of the conference master. Have them add the conference master to their contact list in advance of the conference. Confirm them as buddies. Alternately, if you know their Skype names, add them and get them to confirm.
  • Create, in advance, a call group for the conference.
  • You may wish to refer the remote callers to my guide to calling in to a multi-party videoconference or a similar document. Send them the master ID when you mail them instructions like these.

The problems

Here are the typical problems that we see if the meeting room just uses a laptop on the table for the video call:

  • The camera is low down on the table, and laptop quality. It often captures backlights and looks up at people. Half the people are blocked from view by other people or stuff on the table.
  • The microphone is at the far end of the table, and it’s a cheap laptop mic that picks up sound of its own fan, keyboard and possibly projector. When it sets levels based on the people at that end of the table, it makes the people at the other end hard to hear.
  • You need the sound up loud to hear the remote folks, but then any incoming calls or other computer noises are so loud as to startle people.
  • People haven’t tried the interface before, so they fumble and have problems dealing with call setup and adding new callers or returning callers. This frustrates the others in the room, who just want to get on with the meeting.
  • Some folks have to come in by telephone, but you can’t really have a speaker phone and a computer conference talking speaker to microphone very well.

Here’s how to solve many of these problems:  read more »

Getting good audio in the conference room

Guide for remote video participants in a group meeting with Skype

Having a group videoconference, or participating by video in a group meeting (where several people are in a meeting room, and one or more others are coming in via video) is quite useful. It’s much better than the traditional audio conference call on a fancy speakerphone. The audio is much better and the video makes a big difference to how engaged the remote parties are in the meeting.

There are many tools, but right now I recommend Skype, which can handle around 5 remote parties if you buy a one-day premium subscription or monthly. In theory it does 10 but they recommend 5, which means the meeting room and 4 others. Only one party (the meeting room account, typically) needs to have the premium subscription. The instructions for the meeting room are slightly more complex — this is a guide for the remote parties calling in. I also recommend Google Hangout, which handles 10 smoothly.

The advice below is definitely ordered. Even if you just do the first few it helps a bunch.

  • Upgrade to the latest Skype, at least version 5 is needed
  • Know the conference master’s account and have it on your contacts list
  • Get a headset
  • Get a headset
  • Mute your audio when not speaking, and definitely if you ignored the headset bit
  • Have a nice webcam and avoid having the light come from behind you
  • Use Windows over Mac, and your machine with the most CPU power
  • Make sure you can see the chat window so you can do IMs without disrupting the meeting

There’s a bunch of stuff here. It’s worth doing because you will be much more engaged in the meeting. You will know who is speaking and see what’s going on. Your voice will be clear and loud. You’ll be able to interrupt and engage in dynamic conversation. You’ll be in the meeting and not just an audience. You need to do the extra work because the people who physically went don’t want to put up with too much to make it easier for those phoning it in.

Upgrade to your latest Skype

The multi party video works only with version 5 for Mac or Windows. If you have a lower version, or you are on Linux (curse you, Skype) you will only come in by audio. That’s still better than coming in by a phone bridge. If you have Skype just go to the Help menu and tell it to check for upgrades (File menu on the Mac.) Hate to say it, but if you have a choice, use a Windows computer. Skype develops first on Windows and the other versions always lag behind. Some useful features are only on Windows.

So before the meeting, be sure to upgrade, and get to know the new UI if you have not seen it before — Skype changed their UI a bunch from 4 to 5.

Become a “contact” with the conference master.

Make sure you are buddies (contacts) with the premium account that will be the master for the conference. That doesn’t have to be the meeting room, but it usually is. (Optionally you can add other participants to your list.) You will normally get an E-mail with the ID, or perhaps a contact invite. You can also search on Skype for most users.

Get a headset and get good audio. Really.

Skype does a very good job of speakerphone and echo cancellation in two-way calls. But it’s still much better if you have a headset, or failing that, headphones and a mic. The meeting room has no choice but to use speakerphone mode, which is an even bigger reason for you to get the headphones.

When you have a headset, or at least headphones and a clip-on mic or directional table mic near your mouth:

  • The sound doesn’t go out your speakers and right into the mic. That means Skype does not have to echo-cancel so much. When it echo cancels it makes it harder to talk while somebody else is talking. With the headset you can be more two-way, and that gives you more presence at the meeting.
  • Your mouth is close to the mic, so the mic adjusts its level down, and all background noise in your environment is thus not amplified nearly as much.
  • If you use the mic in your laptop, it really hears keyclicks, mouse click and even the fan too well. In fact, you dare not type without muting your mic first.

Do not use a bluetooth headset — they limit you to phone quality if you use the microphone. Hi-fi bluetooth headphones plus an independent mic will work fine.

You might want to test your audio by calling somebody, or calling the “Skype Test Call” address that goes into every Skype contact list by default.

Mute your sound if you go away, or type, or are just listening for a while

The high quality audio of computer calls is really valuable. It helps everybody understand everybody, and makes it much clearer who is speaking. This comes with an ironic curse — it picks up all sorts of background sounds that regular telephones don’t transmit. You would be amazed what it picks up. Mouse clicks. Keyboard clicks. Grunts. Eating. People in the next room. Planes flying by. (It does less of this if you use a headset and manual volume setting.)

If you are going to be sitting back and listening, mute your own microphone while doing this. If you leave your computer definitely mute. If you leave to take a phone call, it’s even more important. I’ve been in calls where the person leaves their PC and we hear them eating, or on a phone call or talking to somebody else where they are, having forgotten to mute. And there can be no way to tell them to fix it because they took their headphones off. Skype has a microphone icon you can click on to mute your mic. It’s red when muted.

If you ignore all this advice and are using the microphone built into your laptop you must not type or move your computer around without muting first. Frankly it’s good to mute to type even with you have that headset, but mandatory if you don’t.

Extra credit if you have a headset: Go into the audio properties and set a manual level for your mic at your normal speaking voice. Then it won’t try to turn up the gain when you are not talking.

Next, consider your lighting

Nothing improves the quality of a webcam image more than decent lighting. Try to set things up so there isn’t a bright light or window in the background behind you, and ideally have a light shining on you from behind and above your monitor. This is worth more than the fanciest webcam. Be wary with laptops, since the webcam pointing up at you often catches ceiling lights.

A nice webcam does not hurt

While the webcam in your laptop will work, and do OK with good lighting, you can do a lot better. The laptop cam is usually low on the desk and looks up your nose. Higher end webcams do much better in bad lighting situations. The Logitech quickcams that Skype rates as “HQ” really are better than the others. You might want to get one if you are doing video calls frequently.

By the way, when the call starts, be sure to make it a video call, or if you are called, “accept with video.” Or you can click on the video button to start your video up.

Possibly turn off your video at certain times

Great as the multi party video is, the more people who use it, the more CPU and bandwidth everybody needs. So if you are just sitting back and not being super active, consider clicking on the “My Video” button to turn off your own video during those periods. Of course if you are going to do some extensive speaking be sure to turn it on again — it’s relatively fast and easy to turn on and off. In practice, unless everybody has fast machines, you don’t want to go above much more than 5 videos, so some people should remain invisible (but still getting HQ audio and seeing the meeting room.)

Optional: Cute video tricks

In Windows, you can turn on the “Dynamic View” and Skype will make the person (or people) who is speaking larger on your window. Handy if you have a big call which makes the individual videos small. Full screen mode (but leave chat visible) is also a good idea unless you want to surf and read e-mail during the meeting. Be warned — we can see you doing that. And your keyboard clicks come through so you may want to mute.

Instead of dynamic view (which jumps around) you can also just click on which video you want to be big. In many cases the best idea is to just click on the meeting room video, which you want to be big because there are many people, and the single-head videos are fine staying small.

Not sending video? Be sure to set a picture in your Skype profile. Others will see this picture highlighted when you talk and know it’s you talking. Even if you are sending video this is a good idea as video sometimes fails.

When problems occur — have chat open

You may get disconnected. The latest Skype tries automatic callback if it was not an explicit disconnect. If you call back the conference master, they have to be careful that they accept your call into the conference, because it’s unfortunately easy for them to just accept it like call-waiting, and put the whole conference room on hold. (This is a bad design, I think.)

Be sure to display Skype’s chat window and be ready for chats and IMs about problems. That way conference problems can be fixed without disturbing the whole meeting. But be sure to mute before you type. The chat window usually goes away in full screen mode, unfortunately, but if you hear little bleeps you don’t understand, it could be you are getting chat.

Hard truth is, some problems in Skype are best solved by stopping and restarting video, or sometimes having a person leave and re-enter the call. Or sometimes even restarting the whole call.

If you are on an ordinary phone

People on phones can join the call. The call manager will tell you one of these methods:

  • The call manager will have a Skype-in number. Just call it.
  • The call manager may have created a traditional conference dial-in number. Call that and do the rigmarole.
  • It is often easiest if the conference manager calls you — if so, make sure they have your numbers. Landlines are better, of course, and vastly less expensive than mobiles outside North America.

In the Meeting room

The situation in the meeting room is different. There you must use speakers with the volume up, and a microphone. Try to put them on the table, particularly the microphone. A quality webcam is much more important here, and the webcam should be up high, at the height of a standing person looking down at the table, so it can see everybody. If you use a laptop on the table the view is dreadful and people block those sitting further down the table. Consider getting USB speakers so you can have two speakers (internal and USB) and configure Skype to send call audio out the USB speakers (which you set loud) but have all other sounds (including Skype call tones) go out the internal audio and speakers which you set down low. Otherwise with the volume way up any PC sounds will drive people nuts.

Special advice for the conference master in the meeting room can be found in the guide for running the meeting room in a videoconference and a discussion of the issues and future features can be found at this article on group meeting video calls.

Review of Everyman HD 720p webcam and Skype HD calling

I’ve been interested in videoconferencing for some time, both what it works well at, and what it doesn’t do well. Of late, many have believed that quality makes a big difference, and HD systems, such as very expensive ones from Cisco, have been selling on that notion.

A couple of years ago Skype added what they call HQ calling — 640 x 480 at up to 30fps. That’s the resolution of standard broadcast TV, though due to heavy compression it never looks quite that good. But it is good and is well worth it, especially at Skype’s price: free, though you are well advised to get a higher end webcam, which they initially insisted on.

So there was some excitement about the new round of 720p HD webcams that are coming out this year, with support for them in Skype, though only on the Windows version. This new generation of cams has video compression hardware in the webcam. Real time compression of 1280x720 video requires a lot of CPU, so this is a very good idea. In theory almost any PC can send HD from such a webcam with minimal CPU usage. Even the “HQ” 640x480 line video requires a fair bit of CPU, and initially Skype insisted on a dual core system if you wanted to send it. Receiving 720p takes far less CPU, but still enough that Skype refuses to do it on slower computers, such as a 1.6ghz Atom netbook. Such netbooks are able to play stored 720p videos, but Skype is judging them as unsuitable for playing this. On the other hand, modern video chips (Such as all Nvidia 8xxx and above) contain hardware for decoding H.264 video and can play this form of video readily, but Skype does not support that.

The other problem is bandwidth. 720p takes a lot of it, especially when it must be generated in real time. Skype says that you need 1.2 megabits for HD, and in fact you are much better off if you have 2 or more. On a LAN, it will use about 2.5 megabits. Unfortunately, most DSL customers don’t have a megabit of upstream and can’t get it. In the 90s, ISPs and telcos decided that most people would download far more than they uploaded, and designed DSL to have limited upload in order to get more download. The latest cable systems using DOCSIS 3 are also asymmetric but offer as much as 10 megabits if you pay for it, and 2 megabits upstream to the base customers. HD video calling may push more people into cable as their ISP.  read more »

Should be many choices when the phone rings

Long ago I described how I want my cell phone to let me command it to play a recording to a caller noting that I have answered but need some time before I can talk, and also how I want the phone to stop ringing once I start fumbling for it. I learned that a few phones do have the former feature in a simple form, and it is something that is within the range of an app in some OSs but not others.

Let me expand those ideas to a more complete list of what a phone and voicemail system could and should do when a call is coming in. My friends Rohit Kare and Salim Ismail recently released a cool product they called Caller ID 2.0, which shows you more advanced screen pops on the incoming caller, such as their recent tweets and facebook status, which is quite cute if a bit spooky. But I refer instead to the choices I might make after seeing their number and other such information.

First of all, as before, I should be offered the ability to answer the call and play a couple of different recordings until I start speaking into the phone. As described, these recordings would be along the lines of, “I’m going to take your call but I am briefly busy, driving or in an audience. Please hold on while I get somewhere that we can talk.” Since the phone should even know (based on rate of change of cell towers or GPS) that I am driving it should be able to figure out which of the two conditions I should report. While there are some minor privacy issues, it is worthwhile to let the other person know you are driving, as you really should have a different sort of conversation. This is so useful it would even be useful to let people know in the ringback that you are driving, but there are privacy issues on doing that, particularly with strangers, but even with spouses.

If the network will cooperate, it also makes sense to have choices that will, like the current “ignore” button, send the call to voice mail. These buttons however would control what sort of greeting is played, and perhaps other actions.

For example, you might send the call to a voice mail saying “Hi, I was too busy to take the call but I am with my phone, and I plan to get back to you within a few minutes. No need to leave a message.” (Though if there was no caller ID, you might indicate that they should enter their phone number for the callback.) You could also have 2 buttons, to describe a longer wait time or different procedures, such as “I will call you back when I get to the office.” As before, one button might make the greeting reveal things to the caller that you want to reveal, such as “Tell my location and speed.” After all, quite often with a trusted caller, the main purpose of the call will be to ask where you are and when you are going to get where you’re going.

Of course, as I proposed in 2005, if they do start leaving voice mail for you, and are on the same carrier, then an attempt to call them back should break into the voicemail session rather than giving you their voice mail.

A standard OS mini-daemon, saving power and memory

On every system we use today (except the iPhone) a lot of programs want to be daemons — background tasks that sit around to wait for events or perform certain regular operations. On Windows it seems things are the worst, which is why I wrote before about how Windows needs a master daemon. A master daemon is a single background process that uses a scripting language to perform most of the daemon functions that other programs are asking for. A master daemon will wait for events and fire off more full-fledged processes when they happen. Scripts would allow detection of connection on ports, updated software versions becoming available, input from the user and anything else that becomes popular.

(Unix always had a simple master daemon for internet port connections, called inetd, but today Linux systems tend to be full of always-running deamons.)

Background tasks make a system slow to start up, and take memory. This is becoming most noticed on our new, lower powered devices like smartphones. So much so that Apple made the dramatic decision to not allow applications to run in the background. No multitasking is allowed. This seriously restricts what the iPhone can do, but Apple feels the increase in performance is worth it. It is certainly true that on Windows Mobile (which actually made it hard to terminate a program once you started it running) very quickly bloats down and becomes unusable.

Background tasks are also sucking battery life on phones. On my phone it’s easy to leave Google maps running in the background by mistake, and then it will sit there constantly sucking down maps, using the network and quickly draining the battery. I have not tried all phones, but Windows Mobile on my HTC is a complete idiot about battery management. Once you start up the network connection you seem to have to manually take it down, and if you don’t you can forget about your battery life. Often is the time you’ll pull the phone out to find it warm and draining. I don’t know if the other multitasking phones, like the Android, Pre and others have this trouble.

The iPhone’s answer is too draconian. I think the answer lies in a good master daemon, where programs can provide scripts in a special language to get the program invoked on various events. Whatever is popular should be quickly added to the daemon if it’s not too large. (The daemon itself can be modular so it only keeps in ram what it really needs.)

In particular, the scripts should say how important quick response time is, and whether the woken code will want to use the network. Consider an e-mail program that wants to check for new e-mail every 10 minutes. (Ideally it should have IMAP push but that’s another story.)

The master daemon scheduler should realize the mail program doesn’t have to connect exactly every 10 minutes, though that is what a background task would do. It doesn’t mind if it’s off by even a few minutes. So if there are multiple programs that want to wake up and do something every so often, they can be scheduled to only be loaded one or two at a time, to conserve memory and CPU. So the e-mail program might wait a few minutes for something else to complete. In addition, since the e-Mail program wants to use the network, groups of programs that want to use the network could be executed in order (or even, if appropriate, at the same time) so that the phone ends up setting up a network connection (on session based networks) and doing all the network daemons, and then closing it down.

The master daemon could also centralize event notifications coming from the outside. Programs that want to be woken up for such events (such as incoming emails or IMs) could register to be woken up on various events on ports. If the wireless network doesn’t support that it might allow notifications to come in via SMS that a new task awaits. When this special SMS comes in, the network connection would be brought up, and the signalled task would run, along with other tasks that want to do a quick check of the network. As much of this logic should be in the daemon script, so that the full program is only woken up if that is truly needed.

The daemon would of course handle all local events (key presses, screen touches) and also events from other sensors, like the GPS (wake me up if we get near hear, or more than 100 meters from there, etc.) It would also detect gestures with the accelerometer. If the user shakes the phone or flips it in a certain way, a program might want to be woken up.

And of course, it should be tied to the existing daemon that handles incoming calls and SMSs. Apps should be able to (if given permission) take control of incoming communications, to improve what the regular phone does.

This system could give the illusion of a full multitasking phone without the weight of it. Yes, loading in an app upon an event might be slightly slower than having it sitting there in ram. But if there is spare ram, it would of course be cached there anyway. An ideal app would let itself be woken up in stages, with a small piece of code loading quickly to give instant UI response, and the real meat loading more slowly if need be.

While our devices are going to get faster, this is not a problem which will entirely go away. The limiting factors in a portable device are mostly based on power, including the power to keep the network radios on. And applications will keep getting bigger the faster our CPUs get and the bigger our memories get. So this approach may have more lifetime than you think.

Allow a refund on prepaid cell service for tourists

Years ago I asked that they let me buy a SIM card in the airport arrivals area and now they often do. I also started a forum here on the best company to buy a prepaid SIM from in each country which has a fair bit of traffic.

And indeed, I have been doing that, because often roaming rates remain obscene. I dropped my Canadian SIM when Sprint offered a plan with 20 cent/minute roaming in Canada that I can turn on for $3/month — this was comparable to the prepaid price I was getting, and prepaid had the “overhang balance” problem I will discuss below. But I’ve gotten or been loaned local SIMs in several countries to good use — especially when both I and my travel companion have one so we can use our cell phones as radios.

But a few problems exist with getting a local SIM. First, you have to get one. The cheapest place to do this is usually the local cell phone shops that can be found in most urban shopping areas. If you plan ahead, you can get one mailed to your hotel, though the companies that do this which aim at tourists always overcharge — perhaps enough to wipe out your savings if your call volume is modest or your stay short. The ideal SIM is near-free, and can be found where you enter the country.

Next, you must fill the account. Almost everywhere, you must use prepaid cards bought for cash from the shops, as they will not let you fill, or refill, with an out-of-country credit card, for supposed security reasons. This is annoying because you don’t want to have a large balance remaining (overhang) on your prepaid account when you leave the country, unless you will be back before it expires. (Sometimes you can use it up in other countries with obscene roaming rates, but often not even then.) But you also don’t want to have to risk running out of minutes in the middle of a call.

The answer: Let me put a fat balance on my prepaid account, and let me refund all or most of it when I am done — ideally back to my credit card when I leave.

The cell company loses that wasted balance, sure, but instead, I am prone to use the phone more if I have a large enough balance and a good enough rate that I don’t have to worry. I will use it like a local. This would be a good competitive edge that would make the difference if I were buying a SIM. You could offer this only to people from out of the country but I see no reason not to offer it to local users too.

Yes, processing the refund has a small cost. If you insist, don’t refund the last few bucks to cover your costs. Or alternately, let me do “minutes transfer” to other prepaid users. Then I could meet somebody (or go into a shop) and transfer the minutes and get cash for them.

Of course, it would also be nice if you would let me just buy a monthly plan deal for just one month, with no contract. Cell companies seem loathe to do this, but T-Mobile in the USA has just started doing exactly that with their flex-pay. In that system you pre-pay for one month of any monthly plan, and if you think you will use more than the minutes on that plan, you can put money into an overage account. But you can’t get it back, so that’s one modification to add. But frankly I would probably never go over the monthly plan I bought in a typical trip.

The remaining big headache is data. Getting a prepaid plan with data at a decent price (or any data at all) can be hard. Those from the USA are used to unlimited data, which they resist selling in many countries. Those from the USA who bring their phones overseas and forget to turn off roaming data often find nightmare bills of many thousands of dollars. The world has to figure this out. Still, those who are used to fancy network PDA phones often find themselves literally lost without their Google Maps Mobile or their e-Mail. We need a way to roam data selectively, letting some apps use limited data budgets but preventing others if we can’t get a decent data price plan. E-mail apps can go into low-data move (never download attachments or long messages automatically, just imap headers) and less frequent checking. If one is careful, one can get something decent at the $2/megabyte (or $10/megabyte) crazy prices for mobile data roaming.

Oh yeah, and think about doing 2-SIM offers to tourists, who often arrive in pairs. Especially if they include cheap mobile-to-mobile calling in the pair.

When the cell phone rings...

We’ve all experienced it. A cell phone starts ringing or vibrating. To be clever, it slowly starts getting louder in case the owner didn’t hear or feel the initial signal. You see somebody going through their bag looking for the phone that keeps getting louder and louder. Finally they answer and it shuts up.

Yet today’s new phones are all featuring accelerometers. This gives them to chance to know we are fumbling for them. Yes, if you’re out jogging it won’t be able to spot the new level of activity in fetching out the phone, but if you’re sitting in a quiet room, and the phone’s been still and it starts moving about shortly after starting ringing, the phone can know you’re aware of the ring, and start getting quieter. (It might switch back to vibrating or flashing to help you find it.) A ringing phone could also be listening to its microphone, and waiting for you to say commands to it, such as “getting it” to “voicemail” to “speaker” rather than have you hunt for the button. How often has a call gone to voicemail before you could find that button? When you are getting it, the phone could answer (to avoid going to voicemail) and then play a message to the caller about how you are still getting the phone and will be with them shortly. If you can hear the phone, it can hear you.

In fact, phones need to understand more when they are sitting on tables or on our persons. Movement is one way to know this. Temperature is another. Capacitance is a third. Hearing “master’s voice” in the microphone reveals something else, like the fact you’re in a meeting. Is the conversation half-duplex? You may be on a landline. Many phones know when they are being charged and change their ring behaviour. They can do more.

And here’s a second feature for cell phones ringing in the home or office. Let the customer, at that moment, call a special magic number from a prearranged land-line. This number would be put in the speed dial of the land-line, and the land-line would send caller-ID. A call to that number would grab the call going into the cell phone and transfer it to the land line. Ideally the cell phone company would bill these minutes at a lower rate, though I doubt it, since they don’t do that for call forwarding set up in advance. This is call grabbing, the way many PBXs can do.

For security there would be a bank of 100 numbers arranged for the purpose. A stranger could not grab your calls unless they knew which of the 100 numbers is the one for you on that landline. Many false attempts would disable the feature, which would be a form of DOS attack but not a very exciting one, as you can just grab the cell phone in that case.

For the user, the UI is simple. You hear your cell phone ringing in the charging station. You pick up a land line, hit a speed dial, and it answers and you are connected.

Of course, the real answer is that phones should never ring at all in most situations.

Iniating calls with a VoIP tool, like Skype

Last week, I wrote about issues in providing videoconferencing to the aged. Later, I refined a new interface plan discussed in the comments. I think this would be a very good way for tools like Skype to work, so I am making an independent posting, and will encourage Skype, Google video chat (and others) to follow this approach.

First, it should be possible to reliably attach a PSTN phone number with an online identity. This can be done by the person who owns them (with a security trick) or by the person who wants to call them.

If a user goes to their tool — quite possibly through a USB handset with a dial pad, or through a dedicated IP phone — the system should check if this number belongs to a user, and if that user is online. If the user is online, then just make the call through the VoIP system.

If the user is not online, make the call through the PSTN, ie. SkypeOut. If/when the called party answers, the caller can say, “I’m calling you with Skype, are you near your computer?”

The called party can then go to their computer and one of two things can happen.

  1. The moment they sign on to Skype, it can notice that they have this SkypeOut call underway, because it gets a message from the buddy who called via SkypeOut. Immediately it pops up a dialog box asking to OK transfer of the call. If they approve, the audio will switch to pure Skype, and when that is good, the phone will be hung up.
  2. Failing that, if the user logs on and attempts a Skype call to the contact who is on the PSTN call with them, Skype should notice that at the other end, and answer the new call by connecting it to the PSTN call.

When connecting the calls together, there should be a brief bridge when both the PSTN phone and computer are connected, and then later (or upon hangup) the PSTN leg would be terminated. However, for those who don’t have a cordless phone or phone by the computer, it would be nice if they could just hang up their PSTN call, go to the computer, and join the conversation. To facilitate that, the presence of a call 30 seconds in the past should still enable this quick re-setup.

The experience for the user who places the call (possibly a senior) is very simple. Place a call. Mention it is on the computer. At some point, without having to do anything, the audio switches and is now higher quality, and video can be started — automatically if the two buddies are set up for automatic video.

For the receiving user, the interface is pretty simple. Go the the computer, log on, possibly click on a buddy or approval box. Then hang up the regular phone (or possibly have already hung it up not too long ago.)

To encourage this, Skype could sell a SkypeOut plan that allows an unlimited number of very short PSTN calls that are followed by a transfer to VoIP for a low monthly fee, like $1/month.

This would allow a very simple UI in the senior home. An ordinary telephone handset sits next to the computer. You pick it up, dial a number, your grandchild answers, and at some point into the communication the video call begins on the screen. This is as close to the familiar interface as we can get.

Now, as for associating numbers and buddies. If this is done by the caller, there is no security aspect. However, it’s much better if it can be done (just once) by the target. To do that, you would declare a phone number and the system would call you. The voice on the end would ask you to enter the touch tones you see on your screen. This would confirm ownership of that number.

The “hang up first” interface question is a bit more complex. I do like the idea of having it be very automated. You sign in (or return to your computer that is already signed in) and bang — you are in the call. However, if you hung up the phone a while ago you might have gone to your computer for other purposes than to continue the call. The caller might have a dialog saying, “The called party hung up. Are you waiting for them to go to their computer?” And if you click yes, then do an automatic start. Otherwise make it manual.

Making videocalls work for the aged

While videoconferencing may not make sense for everyday use, I think it has special value for contact with distant relatives, particularly older ones who don’t travel very much. They may not get to see the grandchildren, great-grandchildren or even children very often, and their lives are often marked by a particular loneliness, particular at senior homes.

But today’s videoconferencing tools are getting quite good and will get even better. Skype now offers a 640x480 video call if you have enough bandwidth and CPU, which is not far off broadcast quality if not for the mpeg artifacts they have trying to save bandwidth. It’s also pretty easy, as is Google’s GMail video chat and several other tools. We’re just a couple of years from HDTV level consumer video calling.

Many seniors, however are unfamiliar with or even afraid of many new technologies, and often in places where it’s hard to get them. And this in turn means they can’t readily set up computers, cameras or software. There is also still not internet access in many of the locations you might want ot reach, such as hospital deathbeds and senior homes. (Had they had the access in my stepfather’s hospital room, I could have had a video conversation at the end; he died as I was heading to the plane.)

Video calls also offer extra human bandwidth, which is a big plus with people who are getting infirm, less strong of mind and hard of hearing. Reading lips can help improve how well you are understood, and physical cues can mean a lot.

And so I think it’s crazy that senior homes, hospitals and hospices don’t come standard with a video call station. This is not anything fancy. It’s a computer, a webcam, and a megabit of internet. Ideally wireless to move into rooms for the truly infirm. Yet when I have asked for this I have found myself to be the first person to ask, or found that there are policies against internet use by any but the staff.

I’m going to describe two paths to getting this. The first uses off-the-shelf hardware and freeware, but does require that the staff of these facilities learn how to use the system and be able to set their residents up in front of it when it is time for a call. This is not particularly difficult, and no different then the staff being trained in any of the other things they do for residents and patients. Then I will discuss how you would design a product aimed for the sector, which could be used without staff help.  read more »

Disturbing abuse of the troops and those who care for them by AT&T and others

Today I was pointed to this advertisement asking you to buy prepaid phone cards for the troops.

AT&T has set up special phone stations near all major deployments in the Mid-East. Phone access for our troops is easy, but calls home remain expensive.

So you can pay AT&T $18 to give a phone card to a soldier to call home with at 22.5 cents/minute, or 57 cents/minute from their mobile. Here are the rates.

Except there is one problem. Phone calls aren’t expensive any more. Not to the USA. Not for a company like AT&T. They are by and large free, well under half a cent per minute from any IP phone or phone company phone, plus the bandwidth out of the location. (I’ll get to that.)

Now in some countries there are monopoly rules that would stop a company from installing a phone on their own network and letting people call out from it cheap. But are these going to apply on a U.S. military base in Iraq or Afghanistan? I doubt it, but let me know if somehow they do. It would be odd, the bases do not seem to be subject to any other local laws.

So what it seems is that AT&T is taking something that costs them about 30 cents to provide, and telling you to pay them $18 to give it to a solider.

As some of you will know, I put up a phone booth at Burning Man and let the whole city call home, anywhere in the world. The calls cost me peanuts, less than what you have in your wallet. The satellite bandwidth for the first year was donated by John Gilmore, but his monthly cost on that megabit satellite service was less than it cost AT&T to do graphic design on their calling cards. Later we used shared internet bandwidth done over a series of microwave towers.

So that’s the unanswered question. Is there something making data bandwidth so expensive to these bases that phone calls (which use as little as 20 kilobits) can use enough to be noticed and cost money? I know infrastructure in these countries is poor and expensive, but are there no data pipes into the bases? Why doesn’t the military allocate a tiny fraction of that data stream and let soldiers call home free? Stories say soldiers have the bandwidth and are using Skype and other VoIP calls to call home for free (often with video!) so what’s going on? At the most remote bases, where connections only come by satellite, I can see a few more limitations, but you can do cheap, if high-latency voice calls just fine from geostationary satellites.

From my own phone here I can call Baghdad for 3 cents per minute, and cell phones from 7 to 11 cents/minute. Afghanistan (regular or cellular) is indeed 22 cents/minute, presumably due to standard monopoly phone tariffs that military bases should be exempt from.

This is shameful.

A Skype Webcam Mother's Day Brunch

A brunch was planned for my mother’s house on Sunday, but being 2,500 miles distant, I decided to try to attend by videoconference. Recently Skype has started supporting what it calls a “high quality” videoconference, which is 640x480 at 24 to 30 frames per second. At its base, that’s a very good resolution, slightly better than broadcast TV.

This requires fairly modern hardware, which my mother doesn’t have. It needs a dual-core processor to be able to compress the video in real time, and a decently fast processor to decompress it. It wants 384K of upstream bandwidth, but ideally even more, which in theory she has but not always. It demands Windows XP. And artificially it demands one of three of Logitech’s newest and most expensive webcams, the Orbit AF or the Quickcam Pro for Notebooks or Pro 9000 for desktops. These are the same camera in 3 packages — I took the Orbit AF which also includes a pan/tilt motor.

Skype’s decision to only work with these 3 cameras presumably came from a large kickback from Logitech. Admittedly these are very nice webcams. They are true-HD webcams that can native capture at 1600x1200. They are sharp and better in low light than most webcams, and they come with a decent built in microphone that appears as a USB audio device — also good. But they aren’t the only cameras capable of a good 640x480 image, including many of Logitech’s older high-end webcams. They retail for $100 or more, but via eBay sellers I got the Orbit AF for about $75 shipped and the Pro for Notebooks shipped quickly within Canada for $63. Some versions of Skype allow you to hack its config file to tell it to do 640x480 with other quality cameras. That is easy enough for me, but I felt it was not something to push on the relatives quite yet. On the Mac it’s your only choice.

Testing on my own LAN, the image is indeed impressive when bandwidth is no object. It is indeed comparable to broadcast TV. That’s 4 times the pixels and twice the framerate of former high-end video calls, and 16 times the pixels of what most people are used to. And the framerate is important for making the call look much more natural than older 10fps level calls.  read more »

Rotary dial application for touch-screen phones

Ok, this would be a cool application for iPhones, Pocket PC and the like — a dialer which presents an old style rotary phone dial, and you have to put your finger in it and spin it around the center, and then it slowly twists back and plays the sound of a dial returning. A bit like how you control an iPod, but slower.

Completely useless, other than for having fun and explaining to kids why we call it “dialing” a phone.

Perhaps with the iPhone accelerometer you could actually spin the physical iPhone to move the dial. No way to generate the classic sore index finger and physical resistance though.

(Some people made jokes about rotary dial on the iPhone before it was launched but I don’t know of anybody who actually did this.)

eComm reborn well

Today I am at eComm, a reborn conference. Tim O’Reilly, who does the eTech conference (which just took place last week) used to run an emerging telecom conference called eTel. They decided not to run it again, so some of the participants who wanted a little more edgy telecom conference pushed to start a different one. I had hoped it would be an ad-hoc conference in the barcamp/unconference style, but instead it’s become a more traditional $1K conference like eTel was.

However, the result seems to be a success. Very good list of speakers (though some are just doing sales pitches as their talks) and a decent sized crowd. And even a few people who were also just at SXSW (as I was.) Some are calling the chain of conferences — eTech, SXSW, eComm, VON and many others as “March Madness.” It does seem possible to spend the month of March, if not your whole life, at conferences.

We’ll see what interesting develops here. Thom Howe spoke to try to convince carriers to become commodity providers, using the example of corn to say that it can be lucrative. He’s right that they need to become commodities but wrong that they can be convinced to want it.

(And corn turns out to be a terrible example. Corn is everywhere because of abuse of the law and corruption in government, in combination with sugar quota.)

Put my PIN into the phone number

When you call to get your voice mail, even from your cell phone, it typically asks for a PIN. There's a reason for that -- there is no authentication on Caller ID, and anybody can forge it. So if you don't require a PIN, and the voice mail let you in directly, anybody could listen to your voice mail or hack it in other ways. (The phone companies could of course authenticate Caller ID within their own networks, but this must be harder than it sounds because they don't.) Some services don't bother with a PIN if they identify the caller ID because the odds of somebody trying to hack it are low. In some cases that's because the hacking party would need to know what services a person uses.

Setting caller ID is actually pretty useful. I have coded into my PBX to call my cell phone voice mail using the caller ID of my cell phone, so I have a speed dial on my desk phone that calls my Sprint voice mail. I do still have to enter the PIN.

So here's the idea. Get a bank of phone number, 10,000 of them, for voice mail dial-in. This can be a bank in some rural area code that still has entire exchanges free. Getting an entire exchange is not trivial but turns out to be not that expensive if you can justify it. Then let a user with a PIN put that PIN into the last 4 digits of the phone number. They would call that special number, and only that number, to pick up their voice mail (or use whatever service.) If somebody called other numbers in the block using their caller-ID, this would be a sign of an attack, and too many attempts would turn on a switch so that any call to any number in the block now requires some identification. (This is a minor DOS attack but not too bad of one if you can still remember a different ID code.)

This done you can put your magic, PIN-embedded number into your speed dial and just use that for instant access to voice mail or other services.

Of course the rural number will look like long distance, but that's no issue to your own phone company. Indeed, if you only want this for use by phone companies for internal calls, we could devote an entire virtual area code -- but you could not call these numbers from another phone. All companies could share the area code because it would not actually exist. (Of course, authenticating their own caller-ID is easier, this is just a kludge to do it with existing tools.)

A block in the 866/877/888 band of toll-free numbers would be nice too but these are harder to come by.

No "get out of jail free" card for the phone companies

I only post a modest number of EFF news items here, because I know that if you want to see them all, you should be reading some of the EFF blogs such as deeplinks or or action alerts or EFFector or others.

However, something remarkable is happening. As you may know, we filed suit against AT&T because we have evidence they allowed the government to engage in a massive spying program within the US without warrants or other proper legal authority. Special secret rooms were installed in San Francisco and other locations, rooms under the control of the NSA, and massive data pipes with all internet traffic and more were forked and fed into these NSA rooms. We want to get to the bottom of this, and punish the phone companies if they violated the very explicit laws which were set up after watergate to stop the President from doing this exact sort of thing. Congress told the phone companies that Nixon showed us we can’t trust the President all the time, and so they have a duty to protect their customers as well, even if the President tells them not to.

But as our lawsuit has progressed, forces are pushing Congress to not just enable this spying, but to grant a retroactive amnesty on the phone companies that violated the law. In one sense I am glad our lawsuit has scared them so much — you know you are on to something when they try to get congress to pass retroactive laws to stop your lawsuits — but the enormity of such action boggles my mind.

The phone companies and White House are pushing for a “get out of jail free” card for their past activity. Whatever you think about the need for such massive surveillance, retroactive immunities are something else entirely. Allowing such immunities will let the President tell people, “Don’t worry whether this is illegal or not. As you can see, I can make it legal.” Congress might give him the proof he needs to back up such claims. It doesn’t matter that he won’t be able to “make it legal” every time he promises it. The fact that he did it this time is still going to get more people to feel at less risk in joining illegal conspiracies. It undermines the rule of law.

The American people need to convince their Senators and House members not to do this. If your rep has already decided they like the surveillance program — even if you have decided you like it — they must realize this get out of jail free card is a horrible idea.

You can use our action alert system to find your rep and their phone numbers, and give them a call. Calls matter the most. See if your reps are on the right committees and talk to them about it.

The house was ready to pass a bill without immunity and pro-immunity forces scuttled it and are pushing to get it added. Call House Members

The Senate Intelligence community passed a bill with Telco immunity in it. The Judiciary committe is now looking at it. Call Senate Members

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