Monthly Archives: May 2013

Good News and Bad News

First, the REALLY BAD news: The portion of carbon dioxide in our Earth’s atmosphere is now trending above 400 parts per million, as measured at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. The late Dr. Charles David Keeling initiated this research starting in 1958 (when the measure was ~315ppm) and has had the resulting jagged upward curve named for him. The results have been repeated and verified at many locations around the globe. Further measurements of the gases trapped in ice cores (and other methods) have extended the curve backward in time to more than 3 million years ago (i.e. prior to the existence of Homo sapiens).5_2_13_news_andrew_co2800000yrs

The right hand side of the curve demonstrates the problem: At no time known to man has the amount of atmospheric carbon been higher than today. And everyday we humans add further to this by continuing to burn fossil fuels and releasing carbon (and other greenhouse gases) that have been long trapped within the earth or by nature. Without doubt, our global industrial engineering, taking advantage of the high power density of coal, oil and natural gas, has had huge benefits to our civilization over the last 150+ years. (We’d all be challenged to recognize our pre-industrial past as very “civilized” when animal and manpower — often in the form of slavery — were the prime power sources for engineering projects.) We all wish this was sustainable… but not!

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace prize (along with ex-VP Al Gore, who is perhaps most responsible for widely publicizing the Kleening Curve), stated in their 2008 report (their 4th assessment; the 5th is due early in 2014) that without mitigation, it is highly likely that average global temperatures during this century will rise between 1-6°C, due to the higher retention by our atmosphere of the sun’s radiant energy. This in turn is likely to cause significant melting of the Earth’s glaciers and polar ice caps, with an estimated minimum of 7m (22 feet) of sea level rise if the Greenland ice sheet melts. Plus the more energetic atmosphere is likely to cause chaotic weather patterns with more drought, as well as much stronger and more frequent storms. Plus ocean acidification and more scary things. Overall, a massive long-term disruption to nature and the environment, and to mankind’s existing way of life, with at least 23% of the global population threatened with loss of its drinking water, food supply and/or living spaces. Without a doubt, further impacts will also include violence between those with and those without, and possibly even global war caused by the arrogant, the ignorant or those in the grip of fear…


The good news? Well, nothing as earth-shattering, but still quite hopeful. Those who know me, will know I’m also a space geek. Yes, I follow the NASA (and other) space programs very closely. I geek out watching a live rocket launch, and have NASA TV in my bookmarks and on my iPhone. Well, today happens to be the departure date of 3 of the crew on the International Space Station (ISS), returning home after nearly 6 months of living in microgravity, scientific research, maintenance and sometimes dramatic repairs (e.g. Saturday’s unplanned spacewalk). The commander of this expedition has been Chris Hatfield from Ontario Canada (the first Canadian ever to command a spacecraft). But he’s also a musician, who yesterday released to the world via YouTube a beautiful rendition of the classic ‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie (which you may know better by its haunting chorus: “Can you hear me Major Tom?”). This new music video was recorded during his off duty time on the station and includes many beautiful views within the station, and of our BLUE Mother Earth. If you remember, the original lyrics were also quite depressing… Yet in this reversion Major Tom is returning to the Earth from a space station (“a tin can”), just as Commander Chris will be doing this evening.  It’s a Must Watch, whether you’re a space geek or classic rock fan, but especially if you’re depressed about how screwed up the human race is… This gives me hope! Thank you for that, @Cmdr_Hatfield!  – Jack

Tried to replace the PSTN lately?

A great challenge for the current US wireline telephone companies is how to replace the voice telephone network (aka Public Switched Telephone Network or PSTN), build up over 80+ years by the Bell System and its progeny. Same concern applies to the cable companies that built their own version of voice service networks over the past 20 years. Though these have different origins, they share the issue of technology obsolesce (with increasing risk of outages, and higher on-going expenses), all while voice revenues are declining; making the business case for replacement extremely difficult. Over the past 29 years I’ve seen multiple attempts at replacement strategies and many different business justifications.

I had someone argue the first “PSTN replacement” was actually the installation of the SS7 network during the 1980s, which removed inter-office signaling from in-band (where it could be and was hacked!) to an out-of-band separate data network using X.25 technology (actually SS6 did this first, but was not fully deployed). If so, then this was the last “successful” replacement! Every attempt I know of since then has ‘failed’. First there was Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), which had a strong start in the late 80s, but has only had long-term success at the interface between public and private switches (PBXs). The residential form of ISDN, known as the Basic Rate Interface (BRI), re-used the existing twisted pair of cooper wires, yet was capable of carrying two digital voice channels and a very low bandwidth 16kbps switched data channel (2B+D). The voice channels could alternatively be used for 56kbps data as well. At the time there were no browsers, no webservers; mostly just FTP, email and private BBSs.  This was long before the World Wide Web became the runaway application of the Internet. In the 90s when the WWW came to be, ISDN BRI was not up that task and was quickly forgotten.

A really massive attempt to replace the PSTN was the Pacific Bell Consumer Broadband Network, which I was involved in from 1993-1996. The plan was to supply 500,000 homes in California (and elsewhere) a combination of voice, data and TV services, based on an exciting (to me, the engineer) mix of technologies from the telco world, but using cable’s hybrid fiber coax architecture. The big issue, though, was that it required running new fiber to each neighborhood and new cable drops to each of those houses. All that digging up of streets, or even stringing aerial, is disruptive and expensive. Being California, there were regulatory issues too (this was pre Telecom Act of 1996). But the final nail was when the Internet started to become a big deal [remember those dialup 56kbps modems?], but the data capabilities were based on ISDN…so this one failed too.

Not long after that the cable industry started deploying broadband cable modems to carry IP-based data, and the telcos followed with Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) services (and later, with IPTV using an upgraded DSL service). The key for both of these was that the implementation was scalable and an incremental overlay on the existing networks (coax or twisted pair), rather than a voice network replacement. No massive digging up of the neighborhoods. Well…, except for Verizon’s FiOS where the fiber is brought to every house directly using PON technology. That’s still a lot of digging, and a lot of expense to put electronics with a backup battery in every home. And so, having already deployed its most economical neighborhoods, Verizon has discontinued any further plans to grow the FiOS coverage areas. Interestingly though, FiOS still carries voice services via the same old Class 4/5 POTS switches in use since the late 1970s and 80s [their plans for IMS still pending].

Most recently? Look at the offer from Verizon Wireless (and AT&T also) to have the wireless network provide voice connectivity for your home phonesets, for only $20/month (on par or cheaper than most basic wireline services), … added to your existing mobile smartphone service, of course.

So what are the takeaways here?

  1. The Bell System (R&D by Bell Labs) did many things well. And that equipment has lasted. Yet, I also have to say, that won’t carry the telcos much longer…
  2. Data has been a growing theme in all these network changes. It’s clear that data (with video via that data) service is now the primary residential service. Not voice, nor linear TV. [It’s also clear that Bell Labs was spectacularly not good a predicting consumer demand for data services!]
  3. Incremental change is a lot easier than wholesale replacement, both in technology and economically. Don’t try to shallow the whole thing in one gulp; cut it up into smaller chucks, especially ones that can be justified in other ways…
  4. Mobile networks are taking over… at least for the 98ish% of the US population area where 4G will be fully built out. [And I didn’t discuss VoIP, except via implication…]
  5. Economically, it’s all about the bundle!, regardless of whether measured in lines, ARPU or RGU!
  6. And lastly, it’s also about moving away from heavily regulated domains [but we’ll save deeper discussion of that topic for a future post].