Telecom

802.11 broadcast of local info

On a recent roadtrip, I did some “wardriving” where you scan for 802.11 (wifi) access points. Today they are everywhere. The scanning program lists the network name (SSID) as well as other information like the model of access point and whether it has encryption on. Often the SSIDs are informative, with the names of families and companies. Mine is an web address that would let a neighbour contact me.

All this happens because most access points transmit a regular “beacon” packet which lists their SSID and other information needed to connect to them. Seeing that the SSIDs were sometimes interesting, I wondered if we might do much more with a special beacon.

This beacon would deliberately tell you a bit about the access or location. It would contain a mixed XML/HTML packet with a variety of useful fields and general text. These could range from simple descriptions (“This access point belongs to Joe Smith, I’m a programmer”) to information (“On this site, Paul Revere stopped on his ride to consult with local minutemen”) to street directions (“Turn right to get to highway 101, left for downtown”) to, of course, advertising (“We sell fresh fruit and have a special on plums today.”)

In other words, a replacement for signs and billboards and markers. And perhaps much more. Access points would also talk about themselves, declaring, for example, if the owner is offering open internet access for free or for fee, or has a local database of information, and what classes of information are in the main text. The local lattitude and longitude for those without a GPS could be useful, along with local map data in a compact form.

Users could quickly get a program for their laptop (such as Netstumbler) to read and display such virtual annotations to the world as they drive. Primarily for passengers to use, of course. Eventually dedicated boxes would become available, and onboard car computers and GPS units could understand the protocol. Mass market access points would include a set-up screen in their web interface to let the owner enter the information beacon text and enable it. (Today some APs have open source firmware and an energetic programmer could do this right away.)

All of this might be both useful and entertaining. Children might enjoy reading all the random bits of information that flow by and stop asking “are we there yet?” The journey can become the reward. (Of course remember to look out the window sometimes.)

I can imagine vendors making a cheap solar powered access point that, during the day at least, sends out information beacons as soon as enough power is stored in the capacitors to send one. These could operate on a small, cheap solar cell (the more power, the more frequent the beacon) and be placed anywhere. “I’m an oak tree!”

Below, I will get into some technical issues and discuss the unanswered question, which is how to avoid abuse by excessive advertisement, spam and falsehoods.  read more »

Double voice mail

Ok, I don't publish too many of my telecom ideas here since I am working on revolutionizing the phone call for my next business, but here's a simple one.

If you have a large carrier voice mail, such as the voice mail for a wireless company, you should notice if I call somebody and they are not simply busy, but in the act of leaving a voice mail for me. If so, you should break into their voice mail dialog and connect us.

Right now a common occurance is this. Somebody calls, you can't quite get to your phone, so it stops ringing and goes to your voice mail. But there on the phone is the caller-ID. You call them back, and you get their voice mail right away. Why? Because they are leaving you the voice mail from the failed call.

Similar thing when a call disconnects. Who has the duty of calling back. Often we both call back and we both get voice mails or busy signals. While one could develop an ethos (original caller calls back) we've never managed, so the tech could help us.

Easiest when we are both on the same carrier, but in fact this could be done in any tightly integrated carrier voice mail, though you do have to be careful about PBX lines in this case because you might be calling from or to a shared trunk.

One fiber does it all

A short note, as I've been busy with a number of things including trying out PC based HDTV recording and mythtv, which I will write about shortly.

In a VoIP pricing debate, I calculated an interesting observation. Today we have voice codecs that can do very fine voice quality in about 25 kilobits. FM radio quality. Cell phone quality can be done in 7 kilobits. Anyway, that means all 200 million adult Americans could be on the phone at once and it would use 5 terabits.

Using DWDM -- dense wave division multiplexing -- where many colours of photon co-exist in an optical fiber, 5 terabits is now well within the range of a single optical fiber.

So yes, everybody could be on the phone at once, in FM quality, with just one optical fiber. Of course one fiber doesn't pass by every town, and multiplexing it all together costs money too and has overhead. But it should be clear just how silly the idea of per minute charges for voice are in the face of this statistic. And indeed they are going away.

Of course we are finding uses for more bandwidth. HDTV file transfers for example (which use 16 megabits but can be credibly done in about 6 with better codecs.) But how long before we can all have an HDTV videophone call at once over a moderate number of fibers?

NA Wireless providers -- allow incoming VoIP for free!

We've seen the explosion in Voice over IP phone companies, using lower IP costs (and regulatory bypass) to offer very cheap long distance. Today, in the wholesale market, you can place VoIP calls to regular phone numbers in the major cities of the world for between 0.5 cents and 1 cent per minute. So cheap that companies are routinely offering people "unlimited" long distance plans for a flat monthly fee.

The rates are cheap, but they aren't yet free, so calls don't happen without contracts and plans and arrangements.

Here's something begging to be done: The cellular carriers in the USA and Canada should allow people calling in from the internet to call any cell phone for free.

This would cost them the tiny amount they get for terminating long distance calls to cell phones, but the end result would be their own customers billing more minutes. That's what they want (sort of.) They could release a free program for use on common PCs to call any cell phone. They could have a java applet or ActiveX control to make a web page to let you call any cell phone for free, just as they let you send an SMS from a web page for free. (If you have a headset with a mic, at least.)

But allowing free and open calling would encourage lots of innovating applications from the marketplaces. Smart PBXs would coordinate and connect with company cell phones over the internet. More advanced apps would link cell phones closer to PBX functions. People who use their cell as their home phone would have another reason to do it -- now all their friends can call free from VoIP phones or any PC. Companies like Vonage would offer free calls to cell phones even for people not on the unlimited plan.  read more »

802.11/SIP/Satellite free phone booth at Burning Man

One core reason I haven't blogged much in the last while is the flurry of activity regarding my annual trip to Burning Man. I've prepared a page about one of my too-many projects this year, which was to build an incongruous phone kiosk in the middle of the desert which worked and let you call anybody in the world for free. It was battery powered, and used 802.11 and Voice over IP combined with a satellite internet connection.

The reaction was remarkable and I have made a set of pages about phone booth and reaction to it. including pages on the building of it, galleries of photos of people using it (including, of course, naked people) and maps of all the places people called.

(I will probably submit this to slashdot next week to test my server!)

Now my goal was to take some highly familiar technology and put it in a place where it seemed impossible. And indeed, most people refused to believe it was "real" since there are other joke phone booths at Burning Man. Their disbelief and shock were what made it fun, as well as the emotional experiences and gratitude that came when people heard distant voices. It was a taste, in a small way, of what the phone meant when it was new.

I have much more stuff about Burning Man to blog in the days to come.

Down with PoIP

Voice over IP, a field I've been working in, has been generating some recent excitement. And that's appropriate.

However a lot of the talk is about something I consider the wrong direction. I call it PoIP, for PSTN over IP or worse, POTS over IP. (POTS, in turn, stands for Plain old Telephone Service.)

This is largely what you get from Vonage and AT&T CallVantage and similar companies. An effort to create a product very similar to the old style phone or PBX, just at a lower price. Yes, there are some differences -- a few cute features formely found only in higher end PBXs and so-called Intelligent switches, and of course the geography-independent nature of using your internet connection as the hookup.

But must of these new features are evolutionary. They aren't the "disruptive" change that we're really looking for. Indeed, in the early days, I used to joke that VoIP was "Not quite as good as the old telephone, but at least it's harder to configure."

It may be that reputation that scared people into making PoIP. They feel, perhaps correctly, that first they must convince the public that VoIP isn't scary, that it's very similar to the phone. And indeed, some customers need that convincing. But that train of thought never leads to a disruptive change, and Vonage will never survive being AT&T for a few bucks less.

Skype, for better or worse, was ready to give up the old world, and insist you use a PC to make calls. I've had investors insist there is no way people would pick up a mouse to make calls, but they are doing so.

A disruptive product is worse than the status quo in others, and does something new the old guard weren't expecting. VoIP users should embrace the internet, not just to jam it into the phone.

Syndicate content